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Rhetoric as comfort food: The mac-and-cheese instinct

Neither the right nor the left lost any time criticizing the other after the Tucson shootings, but it's increasingly clear the suspect was not politically motivated.

January 13, 2011|Meghan Daum

If only we could go back to Monday. Discussions about Saturday's shootings in Tucson, which killed six and wounded 13, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were so much simpler then: inflamed, righteous and deliciously partisan in a comfort-food kind of way.

The fallout from the tragedy took a neat and predictable course: the left blaming the right for its association with incendiary rhetoric, and the right mounting a tough defense against such accusations, arguing that liberal elites forever paint conservatives as ignorant, backwoods hatemongers when in fact (and I heard this multiple times and in multiple forms as I tuned into KRLA-AM, the local conservative talk station, this week) it's the left that's "always" been "full of hate."

Loosely translated: "I'm rubber you're glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you."

How great would it be to be able to stay on that message? It was almost like a playground for partisanship, a magical world where liberals can blithely circulate e-mails about how Sarah Palin herself might as well have pulled the trigger in that Tucson parking lot, and conservatives can express their disgust that liberals are so shamelessly opportunistic in the face of a tragedy.

But now nearly a week has passed since the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, assumed the title of America's Next Top Domestic Terrorist, and a critical mass of people seem to be admitting, begrudgingly, that his act was not politically motivated. A CBS News poll released Tuesday found that 57% of Democrats and Republicans rejected the notion that Loughner's alleged actions were somehow galvanized by heated political speech.

Indeed, as details about Loughner emerged, it became increasingly clear that his fixation with Giffords wasn't about politics but personal demons. Although Giffords, a centrist Democrat in a sharply divided district in a hard "tea-partying" state, had enemies, none of them were involved in Saturday's shooting.

No matter. Plenty of people are still trying to shoehorn the whole event into some kind of political/cultural watershed moment. Much of the left, of course, insists that even if no overt political agenda was a motivating force, the confluence of gun culture, xenophobia and paranoid blowhardism on the right surely contributed in some way. And much of the right represented on KRLA remains deeply invested in the idea that liberals are so stupidly literal that they truly believe words such as "reload" and "bull's-eye," when used in campaign speeches, signal that it's OK to murder your opponent.

In other words, the particulars don't matter much; they're just another excuse to reiterate the usual absurdities. For example, the notion that Palin may as well have committed mass murder in Tucson. I mean, get real. The woman is many things, but murderer is not among them. In fact, suggesting as much is about as boneheaded as suggesting that the president is a socialist. And most of the people mouthing this stuff and setting the agenda know that perfectly well.

Some of this can be chalked up to the predictable din of the predictable echo chambers. But it also might be the result of one of the most vexing aspects of this event: There isn't yet a clear takeaway from what happened in Tucson. We know we're shockingly powerless to prevent such tragedies in the best of times, and these aren't the best of times. We know six people, including a 9-year-old child, have died. We know 13 people were injured, including a young congresswoman whose prospects for recovery remain uncertain. But that's almost nothing, given the searing questions the shootings expose.

There may never be a satisfactory explanation for all the ways things that went wrong in Tucson last weekend. And in a culture that craves around-the-clock dissection of problems, not to mention immediate resolution, not having answers can be terribly frightening.

And what do we do when we're hungry? We self-soothe — in this case with the empty calories of all that partisan comfort food. Maybe a weekend fast is in order. Or a hunger strike.

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