For some time, violent imagery has characterized much American political discussion.  For example, two weeks ago Mrs Acilius and I watched the 1996 documentary A Perfect Candidate, a chronicle of a US Senate race in Virginia; the Republican candidate goes hunting with some supporters, one of whom brings a small boy along.  The boy, wielding a rifle, is asked what he’s hunting.  “Hares,” he says.  Then he adds, “Hares and Democrats.”  The adults laugh, the camera zooms in on the boy’s face.  He seems a bit baffled by their reaction, unsure what it is that’s supposed to be funny.

Saturday’s shooting of 20 people in Tucson, Arizona, among them Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, prompted many to decry this violent imagery.  In particular, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s habit of using firearms-related graphics and figures of speech when calling for the defeat of her political opponents, Representative Giffords among them, has occasioned much complaint.

Governor Palin has refused to apologize for her remarks, calling herself the victim of a “blood libel.”  By this she apparently means that her critics have accused her of causing the massacre.  This stand might make sense in a court proceeding, where apologies count as admissions of legal responsibility.  If the governor were a defendant in such a proceeding, then her defiant attitude and the fear of censorship that many on the Right have raised would be understandable.  Yet no such proceedings are even remotely likely, and her refusal to apologize is certainly not winning her any fans.  She seems to be trapped in a self-defeating pattern of behavior.

In a comment elsewhere, I’ve suggested that the USA might be a better place if the ethical concept of “taste” were revived.  If we still had the idea that there are such things as “good taste” and “bad taste,” then someone in Governor Palin’s position might have options that are currently not available to her.  She could recognize that it is in bad taste to talk about shooting people, apologize for that bad taste, and resolve to show good taste in the future.  This would not imply a damaging admission; everyone on earth has at some point or other flown off the handle and acted like a jerk.  Therefore, everyone should be prepared to accept such an apology.

If, on the other hand, the governor believes that the political situation in the USA is so bad that it is necessary to disregard the canons of taste and to continue using the violent imagery that has become her trademark, then a society in which the concept of taste still had ethical force would take that belief of hers seriously.  Good taste is not the highest of the virtues, and it can be disregarded in crises.  By continuing to use violent imagery after the massacre in Tucson had reminded everyone that it is in extremely bad taste, therefore, the governor would be making it clear that she regards the political situation in the USA as a crisis.  She could then defend this view, and potential voters could assess the soundness of her judgment based on that defense.

The Tucson Massacre

Saturday, some guy shot 20 people in Tucson, Arizona.  The first person he targeted was U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

In the days since, the American media has been flooded with speculation as to the shooter’s motives.  Many people, such as this cartoonist, have focused on the fact that Giffords is a member of the Democratic Party, and a great deal of very heated rhetoric has been directed against that party.  Quite a few have focused on a map former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin posted on Facebook with a symbol of crosshairs on Giffords’ district.  Others have brought up the fact that Giffords is the first Jewish person elected to Congress from Arizona and speculated that the shooter might have been anti-semitic.  Still others have brought up the debate about immigration currently raging in Arizona and have suggested that it somehow made Giffords a target.

I suggest we look at the victims and ask at which of them the shooter aimed his gun.  His first shot was discharged point-blank into the congresswoman’s head.  He also targeted Mavanell Stoddard, hitting her with 3 rounds before her husband, Dorwan, made his way in front of her and gave his life to save hers.   Dorthy Morris was apparently also a target; her husband, George, also threw himself on his wife during the shooting, though he was too late to save her life.  Did the shooter think Mrs Stoddard and Mrs Morris were likelier to be Democrats their husbands?  Or that they were likelier to be Jewish?  Or that they were likelier to share Giffords complex and nuanced views on immigration?  Maybe!  Perhaps they were wearing T-shirts decorated with a donkey, a Star of David, and the slogan “Honk if you love to spend hours discussing immigration policy.”  Or maybe they had something else in common.

To my knowledge, no detailed forensic reconstruction of the shooting has yet been published.  However, what has come out suggests that most of the women and girls who were shot were standing closer to the shooter and were in his line of sight, while the men were either too far away to have been deliberately targeted (for example, Judge John Roll), or gave their lives in deliberate acts of heroism like those of Mr Stoddard and Mr Morris.  The Feminist Peace Network has made the point that the shooter seems to have targeted women; I haven’t seen that point elsewhere yet.