On Feb. 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara, delusional and a loner, fired his .32-caliber pistol at FDR in the Bayfront Park area of Miami.
Five feet tall, Zangara could not aim over the crowd. So, he stood on a folding chair and was piled on after the first of five shots. He wounded four people, including Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago.
In two weeks, Zangara, who pleaded guilty, had been sentenced to 80 years. When Cermak died on March 6, Zangara was retried for murder and sentenced to the electric chair, where he died on March 20, 1933.
In that time, if you knew what you were doing, knew the penalty for it and then committed the crime, you paid the price – and swiftly.
There was no wailing that Zangara, a misfit suffering from a stomach ailment, was not fully responsible.
There was no campaign to accuse Republicans, after a rough election, of creating an atmosphere in which a deranged mind may have been driven to try to kill FDR.
That came three decades later, when conservatives were charged with having “created the atmosphere” in which JFK was assassinated.
Lee Harvey Oswald was a communist who had defected to Russia and a member of the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee, who had only recently arrived in Texas. Yet moral culpability for what he did was laid at the door of the city of Dallas and the rising American right.
Had not, the press asked, Adlai Stevenson been lately jostled by a crowd in Dallas? Had not LBJ and Lady Bird been verbally abused in the lobby of a Dallas hotel in 1960? Was Dallas not a hothouse of the right?
The same smear tactic was employed when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, among them 19 children. Right-wing radio and its anti-government rhetoric, it was said, created the atmosphere that made it easier for McVeigh to feel justified in blowing up a federal building.
Saturday, even before Jared Loughner had been charged with murdering six people in Tucson, including a 9-year-old girl and a U.S. judge, and wounding 13 in an assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the old smear machine had been wheeled out.
Giffords, it was said, had been “targeted” by Sarah Palin for defeat in ads depicting her district in cross hairs. And had not Palin used the expression, “Don’t retreat, reload!”? Had not Sharron Angle in Nevada talked of “Second Amendment remedies”?
Had not talk-show hosts on Fox News used incendiary language that can drive weak and deranged minds over the line?
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat and friend of Giffords, kicked off the campaign Saturday with this excoriation.
“I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are – how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”
Dupnik later narrowed it to some “people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.” Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell narrowed it further to Fox News, the home of Glenn Beck.
Elements on the left are now connecting the dots – the words of Palin and Fox News – to the deeds of accused mass murderer Jared Loughner.
This is not political hardball. This is political dirt ball.
Do any such dots exist in reality? Or only in the embittered minds and malevolent motives of those unreconciled to the defeat they suffered Nov. 2?
Undeniably, political rhetoric is hotter than it has been since the 1960s and ought to be dialed down. But Barack Obama, talking tough in 2008 about how he would deal with Republican attacks, himself said, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun. … Folks in Philly like a good brawl.”
In 2010, Obama called on Hispanics to join him and “punish our enemies.” Harry Reid in 2009 called tea-party critics “evil-mongers” who disrupt town-hall meetings with “lies, innuendo and rumors.”
It is easy for journalists to imply or impute a causal connection between hot words and horrible acts. Simply twin the two in a story, or ask an interviewee if he thinks these words and those deeds are not connected. And then let the public imagination do the rest.
As of today, there is not a shred of evidence of any connection between what Sarah Palin or Fox News said and what Jared Loughner did. From the evidence, Loughner had his first and perhaps his only encounter with Giffords in 2007, a year before Palin ever came to national attention as the running mate of John McCain.
The man charged with this awful atrocity is Jared Loughner.
Our country would be better served if, instead of accusing each other of moral culpability for these crimes, politicians and media joined to demand that Loughner be denied the fame (or infamy) he sought, and that he receive the same swift justice as Giuseppe Zangara.