Within an hour of Saturday’s tragic shooting in Arizona, the Twittersphere had quickly seized on a map put out by Sarah Palin’s political action committee last year that had gun-sight images over the congressional districts of House Democrats she wanted to win for the GOP in 2010.
Among her targets: Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was critically wounded by a gunman Saturday. His motives, authorities say, are not fully known. But friends of the suspect, Jared Loughner, have suggested that he had held a grudge for at least three years against Giffords dating back to when he met her in 2007.
Still, some believe that incendiary rhetoric like Palin’s bears some responsibility in the tragedy. Giffords herself had previously raised concerns about Palin’s map: “The way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action.”
On Sunday,the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, cited the Palin map as a sign of the “toxic rhetoric” that has come to define national politics in recent years. He said he was not making a direct connection between Palin and the shootings.
Palin offered her condolences after the massacre Saturday in a brief message on Facebook and has said little else of it. But she did email conservative radio host Glenn Beck, who read part of their exchange on the air Monday morning, per Politico’s Keach Hagey. “I hate violence,” Palin wrote Beck. “I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence.”
Still, Palin has become a focal point in the debate over heated rhetoric, and her response is likely to be a defining moment in her political career. One informal but telling sign of the potential stakes for Palin: According to Facebook, the top question dominating debate on the site over the weekend was “Is Sarah Palin to blame?”
So far, Palin’s team, angry that the former governor is being linked to the shooting, has struggled to contain the controversy. On Saturday, the map citing Giffords was abruptly pulled from the SarahPAC site – even though it remained on Facebook. Rebecca Mansour, a Palin aide, said on Twitter that the map was pulled because it “was no longer relevant” since the 2010 campaign was over.
In a subsequent interview with GOP radio host Tammy Bruce, Mansour defended the map. They weren’t gun sights but “surveyor’s symbols,” Bruce suggested, according to Alaska Dispatch, and Mansour agreed. But that contradicted Palin’s own prior characterization of the map’s symbol as a “‘bullseye’ icon.”
According to Alaska Dispatch, Mansour said attempts to link Palin to the shooting were “obscene” and “appalling.” She said there was “nothing irresponsible about our graphic.”
Palin is hardly the first politician to use gun or military imagery in campaigning. As the Palin’s supporters on the right noted, even President Obama has used similar metaphors, telling Democratic donors in 2008, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” And Palin’s former running mate, Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, had defended Palin’s call for followers to “reload” as they rallied to capture Congress. “I’ve heard all of the language throughout my political career,” he said.
But the bigger question is whether Palin will seek to passionately defend her comments and political ground – as she has been known to do during past controversies – or whether she, like other political figures in recent days, will urge her supporters to cool the rhetoric.
As Politico’s Jonathan Martin says: “Whether she defends, explains or even responds at all to the intense criticism of her brand of confrontational politics could well determine her trajectory on the national scene – and it’s likely to reveal the scope of her ambitions as well.”