Immediately after President Obama's inspiring speech at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson mass murder last week, the right wing finally figured out how to respond to the outrage over the gun-toting rhetoric it's been ramping up since the 2008 election: They claimed that Obama had absolved them.
Charles Krauthammer, Chris Wallace, and Brit Hume, in a joint sigh of relief at Obama's call to stop "assigning blame" for the tragedy, all praised the speech, with only a few initial quibbles. Even Glenn Beck deemed it "probably the best speech he has ever given," and found fault only that Obama's exonerating words came "late" (although Beck was mum on the timing of Palin's "blood libel" video, which shipped on the morning the same day). But it was Pat Buchanan who spelled out exactly why Obama's "outstanding speech" was music to conservative ears: It sent, he said, "a fairly stern admonition, especially to the far left in this country, which has been quite frankly conducting something of a lynch mob against Glenn Beck, against Sarah Palin, against Rush Limbaugh."
Or as a commenter on Conservatives4Palin.com wrote:"So his followers (libs, the media etc.) now look like complete idiots. REALLY big idiots. HA! Sarah won again my friends."
Here's the quote from Obama's address that most conservative pundits have interpreted as their own private presidential pardon: "But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. That we cannot do. That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."
There's that scary bit about "empathy" and the implied collectivism of "together" at the end, but asking people to stop blaming each other is like the balm of Gilead for Republicans just now. Most know (despite Glenn Beck) their American history: political assassinations have often ushered in eras of progressive legislative action as popular opinion reels away from political violence. Abe Lincoln's murder led to a Reconstruction that elected black governors, congressmen and legislatures; William McKinley's assassination led to Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era; JFK's killing helped Lyndon Johnson pass not only the 1964 Civil Rights Act but Medicare, too. Even the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life led to the Brady bill. The flood of empathy that a public killing unleashes can unblock log jams carefully tended for years, even decades, and conservatives absolutely have to get the national conversation off the subject of who's to blame for encouraging violence.
And the conservatives' claim that Obama has given them a pass on their rhetoric sends shivers through Democratic ranks because, in the wake of the tax deal with Mitch McConnell for the super-rich and all the pre-emptive compromises of the past two years, liberals worry that Pat Buchanan might be right.
We'll know on January 25, when Obama delivers his third State of the Union address. If he does not call for some form of meaningful gun control—at the very least announce his support for New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's call to reinstate the ban on outsized magazines for semi-automatic weapons—we'll know this is another crisis he's willing to let go to waste.
The sounds coming from Beltway larynxes this week were not reassuring. Asking for more gun control after a crazy man shot twenty people and killed six in a Safeway parking lot? Now that's crazy! Ain't gonna happen, pols and pundits have declared. On Friday's Bill Maher show, James Carville said, sure, we could talk about gun control, but "the NRA is not going to let it happen." (Rachel Maddow took on this sort of pre-emptive pessimism last week by breaking down just how gun-control measures became law in the past despite insiders' nay-saying.)
For the sake of argument, though, let's say that the conventional wisdom is right, that even the near-assassination of a member of Congress won't open a window for gun-control legislation. If discussing violent rhetoric is off-limits and gun control is a nonstarter, what's that leave us to "blame"? Oh yeah, mental illness. Blaming the mentally ill and cracking down on them (even though they're unlikely to be more violent than the general population, unless, as some studies show, they go untreated), fits only too well with the old law-and-order sentiment for locking 'em up and throwing away the key.
But focus on the mentally ill raises conundrums for the right. Logically it should mean more thorough background checks and longer waiting times for everybody who wants to buy a gun, which are anathema to the NRA. And it makes repealing the healthcare law, which extends coverage for mental health treatment, look like an even dumber symbolic gesture than it already does. (Support for repeal in fact has dropped from 46 percent the day before Tucson shooting to only 25 percent afterwards, according to an Associated Press/GfK poll.)
Anyway, contrary to the truism that alleged Tucson gunman Jared Loughner is insane and therefore couldn't possibly have been influenced by the charged political atmosphere, emotionally unstable people often have political leanings. On Saturday, one of the victims wounded in the attack, Eric Fuller, a liberal 63-year-old, was arrested and involuntarily committed after seeming to threaten a local Tea Party leader during a town hall moderated by ABC's Christiane Amanpour in Tucson. As the Tea Partier, Trent Humphries, was explaining that no one should talk about gun control until all the dead were buried, Fuller yelled, "You're dead." (He has since apologized.) And on Sunday, an unsuccessful Republican Congressional candidate in Indiana, Cheryl Allen, who says she had previously been committed, was arrested on charges that she made threats against judges and other officials via Facebook. Arrests and involuntary commitments on both sides of the political debate will no doubt increase, as nervous cops try to protect public officials pro-actively.
If nothing happens out of this tragedy—no more funding for mental health, no more gun control, no more of an understanding that it's not cool to demonize your opponents—then the right-wing spin that Obama's speech let them off the hook will be fulfilled.
Let's hope the president does better than that.