The instinct of some liberal voices to lay blame for the Arizona shootings on the right, before any facts were known, is unseemly and potentially more divisive that the spirited rhetoric that is their target.
It is hard to resist payback, like pointing out the violent rhetoric directed against President George W. Bush from the left. Despite all of the strong rhetoric directed against Ronald Reagan (remember, some civil rights leaders said he'd legitimize Nazism in America after his 1980 election), I can't remember any conservatives blaming Reagan's shooting by John Hinckley on leftist rhetoric, or still less on Hollywood for a nutjob who took his model from "Taxi Driver."
But this blame-setting shows an appalling historical ignorance and lack of perspective. The very first election in history where power passed from one political party to another without violence was our election of 1800, when Jefferson turned out Adams. It was the first time, as Lincoln observed, that ballots replaced bullets. The vitriol in that election would make Fox News and MSNBC blush.
Jefferson, the Federalists said, would bring the guillotine and French Jacobin terror to America. Adams, the Republicans responded, was intent on refastening the tyranny of the British monarchy. Reason TV offered a perfect representation of what an attack ad from that campaign would look like if they'd had 30-second spots back then, not to mention the fact that in those days people often ended their political quarrels through duels (see: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr). Is political vitriol really worse today? Get a grip.
To be sure, today's 24-hour news cycle and the Internet amplify our discord, but the real complaint should be that the political finger-pointing is keeping us from having a more urgent conversation. Most acts of political and other senseless violence in the last generation (Arthur Bremer, John Hinckley, the Unabomber, Loughner, and the man who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last year) are people who are deeply mentally disturbed.
Is there any way we can identify and control such people to prevent this kind of evil event? That's a very hard question. Most mentally ill people we see wandering the street are harmless; re-institutionalizing such people on a mass scale would surely be an injustice. But unless we find some way to try to cope with this, horrors like this will happen again. That's not something we'll change by adopting a political speech code.
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.