*The instant Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were gunned down at a public meet-and-greet in Tucson, leaving six dead-including a federal judge, several retirees, and a 9-year-old student council representative-Tea Party grandmaster Sarah Palin and leaders of her movement swung into damage-control mode.

Palin offered condolences to the families of the shooting victims and called for prayers for peace and justice. Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer went further and condemned the shootings as “an attack on the democratic process.”

Palin’s and Kremer’s expressions of outrage are undoubtedly sincere and heartfelt. But those fine sentiments don’t absolve them of blame for helping to create the hyper-vicious, borderline-vigilante climate that has provoked more than one unbalanced kook -as the alleged shooter Jared Loughner clearly is-to blast away at innocents, under the guise of striking back at someone or something whose politics, ideas, religion, or race they hate.

That this country had entered a new era-where it was some thought it permissible to take the law into their own hands and bombard public officials with life-threatening letters, texts, phone calls, and in some cases physical attacks-was plainly evident during and after the health care reform debate last year.

Nearly a dozen Democrats and Republicans received threatening messages. Republican Rep. Eric Cantor got a bullet through his campaign-office window. Other legislators had their windows broken and their tires slashed. Palin didn’t help matters with her oft-quoted exhortation to conservatives to “reload”-complete with photos of her on hunting forays, gun in hand. Palin and GOP leaders drove home their message that political opponents-i.e. liberal and moderate Democrats-were ripe for attack when she plastered an image of crosshairs in a Facebook post listing 20 vulnerable House Democrats who had voted for health care reform. Giffords was one of them.

Palin sensed the dangerous line that she had edged up to with her depiction of Democrats in the GOP’s gun sights. She protested that she was not calling for anyone to slaughter them with weapons but to vote them out of office.

Palin was far from alone in cavalierly tossing about violent images to make the point that Democrats were fair game for attacks. Tea Party member Catherine Crabill, who ran for the Republican nomination in the Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, flatly declared that the right to carry firearms was the way the Founding Fathers meant for citizens to fight off tyranny. Failed Nevada senate candidate Sharron Angle was unabashed in proclaiming that the Constitution gave citizens the right to oust a “tyrannical” government-which, she cryptically added, meant removing her opponent Harry Reid from office. Angle backpedaled fast, insisting that she meant vote him out, not kill him. Whether a retraction or “a clarification,” Angle’s words had a definite wink-and-nod feel to them, and Reid was neither amused nor mollified.

The scariest threats from the right-and the deranged feeding off their hate-have been aimed at President Obama. A year ago, hundreds of Facebook respondents answered a poll question, “Should Obama be killed?” The poll was quickly yankedbut the fact that it was even briefly on the site for a brief gave de facto dignity to the bizarre and murderous question.

Obama has been in danger from the moment he announced he would seek the presidency in February 2007. He had the dubious distinction of being the earliest presidential contender ever to be assigned Secret Service protection on the campaign trail. This didn’t ease the jitters over his safety. Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson fired off a letter to Secret Service officials practically demanding that the agency provide all the resources and personnel at its disposal to ensure the safety of Obama and the other presidential candidates, notably Hillary Clinton.

As the showdown with John McCain heated up in the fall of 2008, the flood of crackpot threats vowing murder and mayhem toward Obama increased. This prompted the Secret Service to take even more elaborate measures to protect his and his family’s security.

In the wake of the Giffords shooting and the murder of Chief U.S. District Judge John Roll, federal officials have again tightened security around Democratic and Republican elected officials. This is welcome. But it does not address the climate of fear and hate that ultra-conservative extremists and unreconstructed bigots and hate-mongers have created. Unbalanced individuals feel they have license to send a hate message, toss a brick, or-as the tragic events in Tucson amply prove- rampage against a public official and other innocents caught in the crossfire. Palin and company can’t evade blame for that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk shows on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.

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