It's obviously pointless to speculate on what motivated Jared Loughner's rampage, especially until trained professionals are able to assess his clearly irregular psychological state. It seems reasonable to presume that he was not guided by any rational political philosophy. To me, the question of whether vitriolic rhetoric inspired Loughner in any way is at best the third-most pressing issue raised by the incident, far behind 1) Our need to expand access to decent mental health care, and 2) Our unwillingness to have a serious conversation about responsible firearms regulation.
Still, it's worth considering (entirely apart from this incident) the impact of the undeniably scalding temperature of political discourse in the age of Glenn Beck, and what sort of response is warranted from those of us who are neither demagogues nor their stooges. And what disturbs me most is how, anytime someone dares to criticize the histrionic lunacy of Beck or Palin or whomever, that criticism is immediately assailed as a threat to the very foundations of free speech. Here's Shafer:
"Any call to cool 'inflammatory' speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power."This misses the point completely. Denouncing certain speech or a certain style of speech, asking people to voluntarily hold themselves to a different (I'll refrain from saying "higher") standard, is not the same thing as calling for government censorship. It is the necessary and healthy response to the "public fury" Shafer describes, the responsibility that accompanies the right.
If free speech is to be worth a damn, it must be rooted in the faith that people, when confronted by "inflammatory" speech, will react in just this way - rejecting it and its practitioners utterly. And not by calling for laws to be passed, or charges to be filed (which, incidentally, Sheriff Dupnik did not do, and which I cannot recall anyone in a position of political or media influence doing*). Instead, we reject the speech of the deranged with speech of our own - we tell them to shut their fucking traps.
The beauty of free speech, as Shafer notes, isn't just that it allows good ideas to enter the conversation. It's that it allows bad ideas to enter as well, and be roundly rebuffed. It allows the shitheads to self-identify, as it were, so that the vast majority of sensible people can refute, rebut, and castigate them. It falls on us to swat down the bilious ramblings of the hateful and ignorant - civilly, loudly, unremittingly. If we don't, if we just shrug and say, "it's their right," then even the most odious vituperation receives a tacit credibility it doesn't deserve.
Free speech thrives because it allows for an intellectual meritocracy - the "marketplace of ideas," as Oliver Wendell Holmes termed it. That meritocracy only comes to pass if worthless ideas are called out as such. Condemnation from the body politic isn't censorship. Condemnation is what makes censorship unnecessary.
*Update, 6:40 p.m. CST - I see via @JamesUrbaniak that Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) plans to introduce exactly this sort of reactionary legislation. It's not likely this will go anywhere whatsoever, but hey, at least it will invite plenty of scorn and mockery. Kudos, Congressman.