By Michael O’Brien and Jordan Fabian - 01/13/11 01:39 AM EST
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) set off a firestorm of controversy Wednesday by accusing the media of “blood libel” for their coverage of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Palin’s aggressive response to suggestions from liberals and left-wing pundits that she had inappropriately used incendiary images and rhetoric in the 2010 campaign escalated the political debate surrounding the deadly shooting.
In her statement, posted on Facebook, Palin wrote, “Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”
Historically, blood libel refers to false accusations that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish children for religious purposes. Persecutors of the Jews employed a “blood libel” mentality to justify acts of violence against them.
Doctors said Wednesday that Giffords, who is Jewish, has been making steady progress and that they expect her to recover from the gunshot wound.
Many Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill were puzzled by Palin’s use of the “blood libel” metaphor. Some Democrats strongly criticized Palin, claiming the use of the term was highly inappropriate.
“When I heard it, I said, ‘What? This is ridiculous!’ ” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish, told The Hill. “It’s appalling. It’s an insensitive choice of words.”
Palin’s statement was accompanied by a video of her written comments. The video, which lasts nearly eight minutes, included a U.S. flag in the backdrop. Palin also wore an American-flag lapel pin.
The potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate certainly captured the news cycle for much of the day Wednesday, even as lawmakers attended prayer services for Giffords and other victims in the Arizona attacks. Palin’s video was posted about 12 hours before President Obama was scheduled to deliver a speech in Tucson, Ariz., eulogizing the victims.
Soon after the shooting, Palin’s critics noted that a map posted on her political action committee’s website with crosshairs over districts targeted for defeat by Palin-backed candidates, including Giffords’. Palin released a statement on Saturday expressing sympathy for victims of the attack. A Palin aide over the weekend reacted forcefully to left-wing claims about the electoral map on the website.
“Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own,” Palin stated Wednesday. “They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.”
Palin’s self-defense contrasted with lawmakers’ actions in the nation’s capital; there, they delivered a series of floor speeches that implored colleagues to demonstrate greater civility in political debates.
“In this hour of anguish, we seek renewed commitment to hope, to civility, to peace among the American people,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.
Even though other pundits have previously employed the “blood libel” phrase, the former governor’s use of it spurred criticism.
Anti-Defamation League President Abraham Foxman said, “It was inappropriate at the outset to blame Sarah Palin and others for causing this tragedy,” adding: “We wish that Palin had not invoked the phrase ‘blood libel’ in reference to the actions of journalists and pundits in placing blame for the shooting in Tucson on others.”
Jewish Republicans gave a more muted response.
Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board of directors, told The Hill, “I liked much of what she said, but it would have been even better if she simply rose above the accusations about her map and focused entirely on the bigger message of loss, tragedy and the greatness of our country and the strength of our people. The better way to repudiate the nonsensical charges against her would have been to rise above them.”
Palin’s “blood libel” comment has once again raised concern among Republicans in Washington about her possible candidacy in 2012.
Provocative and unpredictable, Palin is adept at capturing the attention of the political media. Some Republicans in Washington, though, are wary of her winning the presidential nomination, privately saying that the 2012 nominee must be steady and equipped to debate Obama on the issues.
In recent days, prominent Republicans in the conservative movement, including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Kristol, had come to Palin’s defense.
Kristol and others on the right have noted that there is no proof that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, had seen Palin’s website. Meanwhile, some have claimed Loughner is more of a liberal, while many surmise he is mentally deranged.
Palin referred to this notion in her address Wednesday: “There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal.”
Lawmakers on Wednesday indicated they were baffled by Palin’s “blood libel” characterization.
“Blood what?” Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) responded when asked for his response to the characterization.
Pallone’s confusion was shared by Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas), James McGovern (D-Mass.), Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
Gohmert said that he had not read or heard Palin’s self-defense, stating, “There are some words that you know incite people, just inflame their passions, and those are things that are helpful to stay away from.”
Asked if Palin should have refrained from putting out a public statement while lawmakers were preaching unity, Gingrey responded, “Maybe so.
“I guess she was trying to walk back a little bit,” said Gingrey, acknowledging that he had not yet seen her statement.
Other House Republicans simply shook their heads and opted not to comment on Palin’s message.
McGovern didn’t know what “blood libel” meant, saying he thought initially “it must be some sort of Alaska thing.”
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.