The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is, of course, both heartbreaking and depressing. It's been years since our country has been through the trauma of a political assassination attempt, and it's no wonder that even the suggestion of one puts us on edge and stokes our fears. Nevertheless, the sane and rational approach to such an event is to stop, take a deep breath, listen to the facts — and above all, to condemn violence in the harshest possible terms.
That, however, was not the immediate reaction of many Americans, as anyone who was surfing the news Saturday morning is aware. Within minutes, hundreds of commenters were at work across the Web loudly seeking to appropriate the story for their own purposes, in many cases fanning it for maximum fear, and injecting it into the roiling narrative of anger, partisanship and paranoia that has taken over so much of the national political conversation.
Some of the comments were vitriolic, bordering on scary. "So Congresswoman Giffords," wrote one commenter on latimes.com, "how's that Obamacare vote working out for you?" On the Washington Post's website, a commenter wrote: "Too bad it wasn't Howard Dean or Al Gore. But a Demokrat is a Demokrat."
The left, for its part, was adamant about who was to blame. "This was a political assassination promoted by the tea party and Sarah Palin," said a not atypical comment on the L.A. Times site. Then there was the paranoid fringe: "2 and 1/2 hours since she was shot and NO WORD on the 'gunman.' Dontcha wonder why???????"
All day, these voices dominated the online debate, opining mostly anonymously and drawing sweeping conclusions before any meaningful information was available. For some of that time, it wasn't clear whether Giffords was dead or alive, or who shot her or why. Despite that, few seemed to have any doubt whatsoever about what had happened and what it all meant. It's a sad commentary on the state of discourse, on the mood of the nation, on all of us.
There were, of course, voices of sanity. "Some of the posters here are real morons," wrote madsircool at 12:19 on latimes.com. "The name of the suspect hasn't been released…. We don't know the possible motive of the shooter. All of you frothing at the mouth from your unfounded speculation should calm down and wait till the facts come out."
We entirely agree (especially with some early reports suggesting the shooter may be more deranged than political). On the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, former President Clinton noted that we are living today in a contentious and partisan time. "We are more connected than ever before," he said, "more able to spread our ideas and beliefs, our anger and fears. As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged."
Free speech is one of this page's most fundamental values; we wouldn't suggest for a minute that it should be curtailed for fear of its consequences. But we agree with Clinton that people should assume responsibility for what they say, and we are both ashamed and embarrassed at the unreasoned and intemperate commentary we read Saturday.