Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker may be playing according to just such a strategy. His lead article for this week's "Talk of the Town" section tries to have things both ways, admitting readily that everyone was wrong about the shooter's political orientation but refusing to apologize for anyone having guessed wrong. Instead, with what must look like absolute insolence to a Republican readers, he suggests that the rush to judgment was Republicans' fault.
[I]t is also the truth that, when the news broke of the Tucson shootings, no one’s first thought was that some unhinged leftist was responsible. From the outset, commentators of all persuasions assumed something like the opposite—assumed it openly if their instant impulse was accusatory, implicitly if it was defensive. And no wonder.... [Militant outbursts during Rep. Giffords' re-election campaign] took place amid a two-year eruption of shocking
vituperation and hatred, virtually all of it coming from people who call themselves conservatives—not just from professional radio and television propagandists but also from too many Republican officeholders and candidates for office. The portrayal of the national government as a sinister tyranny and President Obama and his party as equivalent to Communists and Nazis—as alien usurpers bent on destroying the country and the Constitution—spawned a rhetoric of what a Nevada candidate for the Senate approvingly referred to as “Second Amendment remedies.” During the same period, there has been a sharp, sustained rise in death threats against the President and against (mostly Democratic)
legislators. And there have been real victims: according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, at least fifteen people had already been killed by practitioners of “insurrectionist” violence since the middle of 2008. These realities, and not the malevolence of liberal opportunists, were why, in the immediate aftermath of the crime, the “national conversation” focused on the nation’s poisonous political and rhetorical climate.
For the final insult, Hertzberg adds: "That conversation, which was worth having before, is not less worth having now because the connection between the crime and the climate is so murky—and it may well turn out to be more productive." His moral seems to be that, if so many people assumed that a right-winger had committed mass murder in Tucson, that means that right-wingers must have done something wrong, somewhere, at some time. The readiness with which so many people blamed Republican rhetoric or propaganda, Hertzberg implies, obliges Republicans to do some soul-searching.
Change the context and some of the names and Hertzberg's reasoning seems more offensive. Let's say that, for one reason or another, the rumor raced from Tucson that the shooter had been a Muslim. Had that rumor caught fire, would Hertzberg after the fact have been as eager to remind American Muslims that their fellow citizens had good reason to jump to conclusions? What if, as my Instant Conspiracy-Mongering Device wrongly anticipated, people assumed that the shooter was either a Mexican or a hitman for one of the Mexican crime cartels? Would Hertzberg be so averse to contrition in either case? An ironic suspicion that Republicans themselves were more likely to jump to any of these conclusions doesn't dispel the feeling that Hertzberg is playing more dirty here than he would otherwise because he ha--er, strongly disapproves of Republican policies and personalities.
So the Tucson controversy continues to show both parties at their worst, exposing each side's deepest, most pathological fears of the other. The truth of the story and the true scandal of the ease with which a madman could get his gun are small matters compared to the continuing debate over which party is more mean. It would be grimly amusing if it wasn't also sad. I'd really like to believe that partisan leaders on both sides stoked the rhetorical fires purely for cynical reasons; the problem of Bipolarchy might be more easily solved if that were so. But times like these remind us that, however much they appear to collude eagerly against outsiders or independent activists, they really, really hate each other. Hertzberg himself opines idiotically that the President's talk at last week's Tucson pep rally will prove a calming moment; "The atmosphere smelled cleaner" in its aftermath, he raves, and "perhaps the memory of it will leave us all in a better place than where it found us." Something sure smells, but I won't say what.
P.S. If you're curious about those "insurrectionist" murders Hertzberg was referring to, here's the timeline from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence -- and Tucson is on the list.