Whenever a horrifying event like Saturday's massacre in Tucson happens, the phrase "senseless tragedy" inevitably turns up in every news report and commentary. The Tucson attack - in which a lone shooter opened fire at a political event outside a supermarket, critically wounding Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl - unquestionably was a tragedy. But was it really "senseless" - meaning there was no reason for it, that it was a random act like an earthquake or a bolt of lightning?
The suspect in the slayings, Jared Lee Loughner, appears to be mentally disturbed. But even the mentally disturbed have their reasons for doing what they do. Bizarre, twisted reasons, maybe - but reasons. And like everybody else, they are influenced by the society and culture around them.
The rants Loughner posted on YouTube and elsewhere indicate a paranoid obsession with "big government" and returning to the gold standard. He mentions Mein Kampf as one of his favorite books and calls himself an admirer of Ayn Rand - but also cites The Communist Manifesto.
So Loughner's own political views remain murky - probably even to himself. But what is all too clear is that for three years or more, America has been marinating in a toxic stew of radical right-wing rhetoric that tacitly - sometimes almost openly - condones or encourages violence against political opponents.
As the philosopher Rush Limbaugh likes to say, "Words mean things." When radical right-wing talking heads like Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and others call liberals "traitors," "socialists" and "communists" and say they want to impose tyranny, there are crazies out there who will interpret that as a reason to kill them.
And actions have consequences. When Sarah Palin posts a chart with crosshairs drawn over images of Democrats (including Giffords) or when Sharron Angle talks about applying "Second Amendment remedies" to liberals, there are whackos who will take them literally.
On his radio show the other day, Limbaugh said it was "fatuous and silly" to link the Tucson tragedy to such over-the-top rhetoric. But the real fatuity is pretending there's no connection. The attack in Tucson was just the latest in a string of violent acts and threats aimed at liberal politicians and government installations. The frequency of such acts and threats has increased dramatically since the election of Barack Obama. Are we supposed to believe this is just a quirky coincidence?
We may never know whether the Tucson attack was triggered by a specific statement Limbaugh or some other far-right polemicist made, but that's not the point. The point is they provide the combustible fuel that can be ignited by any chance spark. Limbaugh and others of his ilk who deny all responsibility for the Tucson massacre are like somebody who's caught at the scene of an arson fire holding an empty gasoline can and says, "Hey, don't look at me - I didn't strike the match."
We're giving them and their incendiary rhetoric THE BOOT - and we hope and pray all decent and rational Americans will do the same.