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Words That Don't Heal

Ruth Marcus
Contributor
As a reporter, editor, editorial writer and columnist at The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus has developed a keen understanding of the folklores and byways of the national political scene. Marcus writes with the…
Ruth Marcus

Sarah Palin feels victimized by critics who accuse her of helping create an angry political climate that led to the Tucson shootings, and she has a point. She chose a truly unfortunate way to make it, using the phrase blood libel.

Here’s the context, from Palin’s eight-minute video statement on the shooting: “Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”

Blood libel is a term with a specific and terrible history. It refers to the scurrilous accusation that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children to use their blood to prepare Passover matzo. Charges of blood libel have spurred massacres of Jews throughout the centuries; the myth was revived by Hitler and persists today from Russia to the Arab world.

Using the phrase blood libel is akin to making a Holocaust analogy: It is almost always a bad idea. Very little compares to the murder of millions of Jews simply because of their religion.

In fairness to Palin, the Tucson shooting/blood libel connection did not originate with her. Writing in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, conservative blogger and law professor Glenn Reynolds expressed outrage that “as the usual talking heads begin their ‘have you no decency?’ routine aimed at talk radio and Republican politicians, perhaps we should turn the question around. Where is the decency in blood libel?”

Excuse me, but where is the decency in comparing political critics, however overwrought or misguided, to mass murderers? Palin’s usage, denouncing the “manufacture of a blood libel,” adds an extra level of vitriol with the suggestion that those who criticize her rhetoric are intentionally fomenting scurrilous charges.

As it happens, I think the attempts to link Palin’s sometimes militaristic and violent rhetoric to the Tucson shooting are unfounded. Jared Loughner seems to have been propelled by the crazy voices inside his own head, not the crazy voices in the conservative blogosphere or talk radio. Palin put Gabrielle Giffords in her electoral cross hairs, but Loughner had already fixated on the congresswoman.

At the same time, the shooting offers a useful moment for reflection about the potentially dangerous consequences of incendiary political rhetoric. Both political extremes are guilty, but, at least recently, the anger seems more pervasive and more white-hot on the right. “Don’t retreat, instead — reload.” “Second Amendment remedies.” “Take our country back.”

But self-reflection is not a Palin instinct; lashing out at critics and presenting herself as aggrieved victim is. She took time to consider and craft her remarks. She could have used the opportunity to try to elevate the discourse. Instead, she further coarsened it. At a time the country is looking for words that heal, Palin chose to do what she does best: attack and provoke.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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