sarah palinI generally try to keep things light here at Left Coast Cowboyland. Wine, organic produce and terriers pretty much sums it up. But some things rile me so much I can’t keep my fingers from the keyboard. Today’s video from Sarah Palin is one such event. I’m calling her out, not because I don’t agree with her politics — and everyone knows I don’t — and not because I think she has helped move political debate into, if not dangerous, certainly less productive territory. No, today I’m castigating Sarah Palin for the unforgivable offense of conduct unbecoming someone who coyly suggests that she wants to lead this country. Add to that appalling word choice and historical ignorance, and — as an English Major, history buff and believer in our political system — I’m crying “heinous”.

Those of you who are deliberately trying to live a Palin-free existence may not have heard of her latest salvo. Since Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, it’s been debated whether our current charged political atmosphere contributed to this shooting (and it quickly became clear that it didn’t) or if, out of respect, we should take this as a wake up call to dial back the hate-speech, lest it does lead to violence. Examples were given including Sarah’s now infamous map of incumbents she hoped to unseat — helpfully marked with gun cross-hairs. It should be noted that it was not the “Liberal Media” who first drew this parallel. It was the woman who was targeted by one of those gun sites and who now lies fighting for her life with a would-be assassin’s bullet hole through her brain. But Sarah Palin took the opportunity, after breaking four days of near silence, to come out swinging with a video statement accusing the media of perpetrating a “Blood Libel” against her. Her choice of words was unfortunate. Blood Libel has been historically and almost exclusively used to mean:

“the false accusation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of matzos for passover. That false claim was circulated for centuries to incite anti-Semitism and justify violent pogroms against Jews.”

No need even to Google. Wikipedia tells you all you need to know about the term and its blood-soaked history. But Sarah again refuses to acknowledge that her words may have consequences. Something striken Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who ironically is Jewish, pointed out not that long ago on MSNBC:

“Sarah Palin has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district and when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there are consequences to that action.”

Giffords’ comments did not come out of left field. She’d been targeted by hate mail, scary heckling and office break-ins by those opposed to her candidacy.

Which brings me to the point where I call “bullshit” on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. The two of them have jumped to Palin’s defense claiming the speculation about whether today’s vitriolic political climate and rhetoric can spark violence is just another Left Wing attack on their girl. Excuse me, Boys, but this debate was going on long before Saturday’s tragedy. And there is some compelling evidence that rhetoric can spark violence. Secret Service officials have repeatedly noted that as Sarah ratcheted up her anti-Obama tirades, the number of death threats against him spiked. I can just barely remember John Kennedy’s assassination, but I have clear recollection of RFK, Martin Luther King, and the assassination attempts on Ford and Reagan. In the immediate aftermath, people were worried about an external enemy — the Russians or the Cubans — or assuming it was a lone nut. I don’t remember anyone speculating that it might have something to do with the opposing political party. In contrast, one of the first speculations by almost anyone I heard talking about the Arizona shooting was “could this be politically motivated?” And those who were seen as “most likely to fire” were Tea Partiers. Granted it was an emotional reaction — borne of horror in the wake of a senseless tragedy. But what does it say about the recent rhetoric that this seemed like a logical possibility? Even Gabby Giffords’ father said, “Her only enemies were the entire Tea Party.”

lincoln at gettysburg

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is a classic model for a leader's tone in times of tragedy. Sarah, you missed that one big time.

So the possible danger of hate-filled speech and the language of violence has been on the table for awhile. Because most of us know that words have meaning. Words can motivate, mobilize and inflame. Why can we not have a discussion about whether we can disagree — even vehemently — without calling for each others’ death? Even über-conservative Roger Ailes told his Fox Commentators: “…shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually. You don’t have to do it with bombast.”

Of course, Ailes had to add: “I hope the other side does that.” Yeah, yeah. And as Sarah points out in her video, in earlier days political disagreement was met with dueling pistols. And a member of an antebellum Congress beat his opponent nearly senseless on the floor of the Senate over divisive issues. Is that a justification for continuing on this path? Can someone break the cycle? Can we evolve? [Oh, I forgot, Sarah. You don’t believe we evolved.]

Thomas Á Becket and Henry II

Sarah, I know you don't go in for learnin' and history and stuff. But Thomas A Beckett and Henry II could tell you a thing or two about the link between words and violence.

Sarah Palin may truly believe her words and imagery have had no impact on threats of violence — and again, it’s clear they didn’t in this case. Her feelings may have been hurt by being linked in the discussion to the Arizona tragedy. She may even feel it’s completely unjustified even to raise the subject of moving political discourse to a more civil tone. But Sarah, this is an occasion where it really is NOT ABOUT YOU.

If you truly want to be a leader — especially leader of the United States — this was a time to choose your words carefully, rise above the immediate details of the tragedy and make a call to our better nature. Take a cue from President Clinton’s speech at the memorial for those who died in the Oklahoma bombing:

Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, let us not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Or aim even higher. How about taking a lesson from the Gettysburg Address?

In summary, Sarah, this was a time for you to forget your personal grudges or perceived victimhood. This was a moment for you to voice the national grief, contribute to healing and urge us to reach for solutions. And it is not an inopportune time to suggest that we find ways to be civil to each other — even if that civility could not have stopped a lone madman from committing an unspeakable act. And Sarah, this was not a time to forget how to Google. In your ham-fisted, knee-jerk defensiveness, you missed the moment. You took the wrong tone. You pulled out the wrong historical reference and you missed making history.

I would be tempted to paraphrase Henry II of England and say, “Will no one rid us of this troublesome pseudo-candidate?” But history majors will recall what the veiled suggestion of Henry’s question precipitated. You see: words matter.