Americans are already debating whether the increasingly violent rhetoric of our political life contributed to Saturday's tragic shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of six innocent bystanders, but at least one conclusion is beyond dispute: It's plausible. And even if our toxic rhetoric didn't provoke this horror, it will another one. It has to. You can't play with fire and expect never to be burned.
Overheated rhetoric is nothing new in politics, though our current level of discourse seems especially dangerous. If the political right is today the guiltier party -- which it is -- the left has had its day, as well.
The current vitriol springs from several sources and gains additional influence from the megaphone of the Internet. It traces back to Republicans' frustration with 40-plus years as the House minority party. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rep. Newt Gingrich decided to do something about it and unleashed a years-long verbal assault against the Democrats.
It's been downhill ever since, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Fox News taking up the cudgel. Today, no slander is too vile, no lie too pernicious to be leveled as conservatives, in and out of government, thrash at President Obama and his agenda. Coulter calls Democrats treasonous. Sarah Palin says the health reform law creates "death panels." Her website put cross hairs on the districts of elected officials she was targeting for defeat. One was Giffords'.
It happens in New York, too. Last year's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino, repeatedly charged over the line in criticizing his opponent Andrew M. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and even former Republican Gov. George E. Pataki.
Against that onslaught, the liberal insults of Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow seem almost benign, though some on the left have this in common with their right-wing adversaries: They, too, have a stake in casting issues as black and white, driving the sides further apart and making compromise ever more difficult. Why didn't Republicans work to improve last year's health care reform bill instead of working to subvert it? Because in the current climate there is no percentage in making government work.
While commentators and politicians may strike the match, the Internet is the new fuel stoking the fires. Where the fringes of American politics once skulked in the corners, they now can communicate at will, stoking fears, egging each other on. Violence is the obvious risk. On Saturday, violence broke out.
Cause and effect? No one will be able to prove that, or disprove it. But Giffords is clinging to life after being shot in the head at a rally in Tucson, Ariz., and 9-year-old Christina Taylor is dead. So are five others, including Arizona's chief federal judge.
The suspect, Jared Loughner, may be mentally unstable and while he is clearly the responsible party, that doesn't absolve those who work to incite anger and, purposely or not, provoke those who are given to violence. Yes, it is true that we all have First Amendment rights to speak our minds, but rights come with responsibilities. This is not about censorship; it's about being grown up.
How, exactly, we find our way back to a more civil brand of politics will be a challenge, but this tragedy offers an opportunity. Shame on us all if we are so comfortable in our wretchedness that we don't even try.