Our question of the day: Who -- or what -- should take the blame?
The reference is to last week's act of domestic terrorism at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs. Authorities say three people were killed and nine wounded by Robert Dear, an eccentric, 57-year-old recluse.
After his arrest, he is reported to have muttered something about "No more baby parts," an apparent reference to a controversial hidden-camera video purporting to prove Planned Parenthood harvests and sells the organs of aborted fetuses for a profit, a charge the organization has strenuously denied.
So who is responsible for this atrocity?
It's a question asked with numbing frequency in a country where you can pretty much set your watch by the random shootings. Nor are answers ever in short supply. We frequently hear that someone's rhetoric is at fault.
This happened four years ago when a mentally ill man killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson. Jane Fonda blamed Sarah Palin.
It happened last year, when a deranged man ambushed and executed two police officers in Brooklyn. Erick Erickson, a Fox "News" contributor, blamed President Obama.
So one is hardly surprised, in the wake of this latest shooting, that Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood's executive vice president, blamed the "toxic environment" created by Republican presidential candidates.
Truth is, if you want to blame someone for this shooting, start with the man who pulled the trigger. You might also investigate what roles were played by the mental health system and the legal system that allowed him access to a weapon of mass destruction.
Point being, in the rush to draw the larger moral lesson, one should be wary of absolving the guilty of their crimes, even if only by inference. That said, let us note that Laguens' criticism is qualitatively different from that leveled by Fonda against Palin or Erickson against Obama. Meaning that it's not absurd on its face.
After all, while one has a constitutionally guaranteed right to express one's opinion, one has no such right to threaten or incite violence. There is, in other words, a fundamental difference between saying "Joe is a terrible person" and saying "Somebody should teach Joe a lesson" or "Joe needs to get what's coming to him."
Have Republicans crossed that line with regard to Planned Parenthood?
Probably not. But they have danced uncomfortably and undeniably close to it. When you habitually refer to abortion providers as criminals, butchers, Nazis, barbarians, and baby killers, you cannot be surprised if someone sees them as less than human -- and acts accordingly. Carry lit matches through dry tinder and every now and again, you will start a fire.
One is reminded of how, years ago, before he himself became a TV cop, rapper and heavy metal singer Ice-T was asked if he thought his songs expressing hatred of police might cause acts of violence against them.
He said no. If somebody aspired to kill cops, he said, "All I did was make him a theme song." He was right, except that he seemed to think himself morally exonerated by that reasoning.
But if you create an environment where violence against some person or group seems righteous -- even if you don't explicitly call for that violence -- are your hands wholly clean when the violence comes? If you give hatred a theme song, what is your responsibility when a disaffected soul starts singing along?
You'll find no pat answers here -- only a question worth pondering for people of conscience in general and the Republican contenders in particular. No, they did not cause this shooting. They are not guilty.
Problem is, they're not innocent, either.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at lpittsmiamiherald.com.