(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)The New York Times
Members of the FBI inspect the crime scene after the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, June 14, 2017.(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)The New York Times
Navigate to News section

A Lesson in Blame

The future of American liberalism is hurt when institutions like The New York Times rely on toxic logic to connect the dots in the Alexandria shooting

Liel Leibovitz
June 15, 2017
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)The New York Times
Members of the FBI inspect the crime scene after the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia, June 14, 2017.(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)The New York Times

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: some maniac picks up a weapon and slaughters innocent people. He hardly bothers concealing his motives—his ideology is there for anyone who bothers checking out his Facebook profile to see. And yet, no sooner are the wounded rushed to the emergency room than the lion’s share of our media, in contradiction of all observable reality, offer a very different story: Ideology had nothing to do with it, and if you’re looking for someone to blame, blame the victim.

This is how most of the pillars of the American press have traditionally covered Israel: If Hamas is launching rockets from hospitals, just say it’s Israel’s fault for firing back. If Hamas is stating clearly that it wants all Jews dead, just say it’s the fault of very complicated root causes for which the blame, of course, lies with the Jews. It’s also how our press covers most global terror attacks: If the Islamic State strikes in London, say, first declare that Islamism had nothing to do with the attack, and then ask what oppressive, insensitive things the Brits might have done to deserve it.

Now, with the shooting at the GOP baseball practice in Virginia, the same toxic logic comes home.

In an astounding editorial from a newspaper known for them, The New York Times today opined that the ones to blame for the attack yesterday on Republican lawmakers were, naturally, Republicans themselves. How’s that, again? To answer the question, the Times treats us to a history lesson.

This week’s attack, opined the paper of record, was merely another reminder of “how vicious American politics has become.” When and how did said viciousness begin? Easy: “In 2011,” the editorial continues, “Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl. At the time, we and others were sharply critical of the heated political rhetoric on the right. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs. But in that case no connection to the shooting was ever established.”

Right. No connection between Palin’s PAC and Loughner’s shooting was ever established because no connection ever existed. We know this because Loughner survived the attack, was readily available for questioning, and left behind diaries capturing his precise state of mind in the days leading up to the attack. But don’t confuse the Times with the truth—the morally and intellectually failing paper falsely touted the Palin connection back in 2011, and it’s doing so again today to argue that if violence sears the American body politic, it’s only because the Republicans unleashed it first. So went the editorial’s original version, as is obvious from the jarring correction they were later forced to append to the piece: “An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords,” it reads, “In fact, no such link was established.”

The rest of the editorial goes on to rehash the same insipid arguments about gun control—arguments that are curiously missing when the maniac’s weapon of choice is a truck, a bomb, a knife, or anything other than the left’s talismanic assault rifle.

Now, just for sport, let’s imagine the following scenario: A shooting in the D.C. area targets not Republicans but Democrats, leaving, say, Nancy Pelosi—may she live in good health to be 120—gravely wounded. The gunman is shot and killed on the scene, but his social media profile reveals that he’s a former volunteer with the Trump campaign in the Midwest and a strong adherent to the president’s agenda. How would the Times cover the attack? It’s easy to imagine a paragraph decrying “the irrefutable connection between President Trump’s rhetoric and the violent actions of his supporters, who for more than a year now have been narcotized by a steady stream of hateful rhetoric emanating from the White House and its allies in the alt-right media.” It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the paper would follow up its indignation with a demand for someone—Paul Ryan, James Mattis, the Supreme Court—to step in and relieve the president of his duties before more blood is shed.

When two radically divergent scenarios lead to the same culprit, you know you’re dealing with a delusion.

If the Times really wants to correct the record, it would follow up by taking a hard look at why it made the mistake in the first place. That is, it would examine the knee-jerk assumptions and overheated language that have crept into both its opinion and its news pages lately, both of which regularly offer space not just to legitimate newsgathering about Trump’s very real misdeeds and the rank incompetence of his administration, but also to wild-eyed conspiracy theories in which the Kremlin or some other malign foreign entity controls the White House. These theories are toxic nonsense, cooked up by political operatives who use social media and the press to attain political ends through means that are inherently extra-constitutional and undemocratic—and that have been quietly and systematically debunked, sometimes by the paper’s own reporting.

The fact that paranoid canards are spreading like wildfire on the left is clearly related to rising levels of violence. The tragedy in Alexandria could have easily been much worse, and it seems silly to expect that the next politically-inspired shooter or bomber will have worse aim. And if the Times cares about the future of American liberalism, to say nothing of the future of the American people, it should resist the urge to publish the kind of distorted drivel it did today.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.