woody_zimmerman_118_2007By now, even Hottentots in Africa know that a heavily armed man with orange hair entered a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, after midnight on July 20, and opened fire with assault-type weapons, killing twelve people and wounding fifty-eight others. The suspect in the crime, now identified as James Holmes, age 24, was apprehended soon after the shooting. He was wearing full body armor and carrying weapons with high-capacity magazines. Police said he offered no resistance and surrendered quietly in the parking lot behind the theater.

Within hours of the report on the shooting, Brian Ross of ABC News reported on a possible link between James Holmes and the Colorado Tea Party. He had found a notation on a Tea Party web-page about a “Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado” joining the Tea Party last year.

Now, we don't know if this is the same Jim Holmes, but it's Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado,” said Mr. Ross – thus indicating that he hadn’t bothered to check before rushing this wonderful news onto the air. It was quickly shown, however, that the Tea Party’s Jim Holmes was a 54-year-old man who had no connection with the orange-haired James Holmes arrested for the theater shooting. ABC News later called the report “incorrect,” but did not apologize for airing it without proper research.

Why did I call this initial news “wonderful?” Because it seemed to validate the very narrative that liberals – including liberal news organs – have been desperately trying to construct since the Tea Party emerged as a political force in 2009. That narrative labels the Tea Party as a collection of radical, violent, white racists. It emerged in 2009, when James von Brunn, an 88-year-old white-supremacist with a history of anti-Semitism, burst into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and began firing a rifle. He fatally wounded one security officer before being shot by other officers. In the aftermath, reporter Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News attempted to link that shooting to mainstream conservative activists, whom he called “anti-tax secessionists.” (This was Mr. Slater’s term for the emerging Tea Party.)

In early 2010, black congressmen ostentatiously marched out of the Capitol together, through a crowd of Tea Party protesters, after passing the Obamacare bill. Some congressmen reported hearing threatening, racist remarks from Tea Party people. This “fact” was dutifully repeated by the media, but close technical scouring of TV footage of the “march” turned up no evidence of such remarks. Somehow – unbelievable though it might seem – the violent racist story-line clashed with the acres of well-dressed grandmas and grandpas routinely seen at Tea Party rallies. The story had neither visual nor audio credibility.

Nearly every shooting event, anywhere in the country, now gets linked – at least in early stages of the aftermath – to some aspect of the Tea Party or conservative talk radio. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) at a mall in Tucson, Arizona, was quickly linked to conservative talk radio and to “…an end to civil discourse caused by the grass-roots Tea Party movement,” by DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). She made this obtuse connection despite the fact that the Arizona shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner – who killed two people besides wounding the congresswoman and two others – was a disturbed loner with no known political agenda or connections.

It was becoming clear that those who are intent on linking mass shootings to the Tea Party movement need no evidence to support their charges – a fine convenience, since there is no record of Tea Party protesters exhibiting violence or even disorderliness at their rallies. It is true that Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter was rattled by arguments from constituents who disagreed with his switch of parties and other political positions, but when did mere disagreement become evidence that civil discourse was gone?

Other politicians have found themselves in similar situations, as formerly meek grandmas, housewives, tradesmen and other conservatives have realized the perilous political environment and engaged their representatives head-on. Neither Democrats nor Republicans were used to this kind of rough treatment, but there was nothing physical about it – certainly nothing violent. Allegations linking the Tea Party to actual violence are crude attempts to smear decent people and discredit their efforts to restore sanity to government fiscal policies.

In the past, the Soviet Union’s rulers used charges of insanity as a pretext for eliminating their political opponents. Actual brain lobotomies were sometimes performed to render those opponents dysfunctional and politically harmless. The Soviets also sent people to the Gulags where they could not speak or do anything else political. The Nazis used the same techniques, plus murder – often on a large scale. The Chi-coms also employ all of these. (We would not enjoy their style of “good government.”) It was Mao Tse Tung – much admired even by some members of the Obama administration – who wrote, “Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun…”

In “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” we haven’t gotten to any of that… yet. Some of us do try to keep people whose views we disagree with from working to change the country’s policies. The weapon of choice in these efforts is discrediting the opponent – usually smearing him by associating him with some repulsive activity or history. The more threatening the opponent (and his views), the more (figuratively) lethal is likely to be the discrediting attempt. This is an old and proven tactic.

In the post-Civil War era, people who had been part of the Confederacy were smeared by political opponents who called attention to that fact. This came to be called “waving the bloody shirt.” It finally died out some thirty years after the war, when mention of the rebellion no longer packed the sting it had once had. Many voters were too young to remember the war, and didn’t care who had fought for which side. In our time, having belonged to the Ku Klux Klan or the Communist Party were smearable offenses that could disqualify an individual for various official positions or offices.

In most of these historical instances, the charge was factual. It was leveled because its truth packed a political punch. The difference now is that charges leveled are imagined, not factual. The activities of an entire group of people are impugned because of a charge that one of their number might have been responsible for a violent crime – or because the group’s political activities could have influenced the criminal to act as he did. This is an important distinction in the tactic of discreditation.

Old-style smearing is still used, of course. President Obama is attacking Governor Romney because of his success in Bain Capital – a venture company that brought many struggling companies back to health by employing sound (and sometimes severe) management practices. Mr. Obama says Bain outsourced some jobs to foreign countries – thereby implying that Mr. Romney hurt the country and would do the same as president. It’s a silly charge appealing to the ignorance of some hearers. They can debate Mr. Romney's experience, but he should keep the focus on Mr. Obama’s stewardship of the nation’s economy. It trumps anything he did at Bain.

Reacting to a horrible, senseless crime by immediately speculating that the perpetrator was most likely associated with – or influenced by – a group whose politics you dislike is another thing entirely. Imagine the public outcry if reports on any crime with a black-on-white racial component included a suggestion that the NAACP probably influenced commission of the crime.

When those who view things this way are influential public figures or media reporters, the potential for damage is very great – both to the accused group and to the reporters and public figures involved. I’m shouting into the wind here, but this really does have to stop. Credibility is a precious thing. Once lost, it is devilish hard to get back. And the public deserves better.

It all reminds me of a long-ago incident when, as a small boy, I fell in with some rough older boys who were doing mild vandalism. They were throwing stones through the windows of an abandoned house in our small community one day. A neighbor came out to chase them away, but I was too young and confused to know when to run. I was left there to face her. She recognized me, and she lowered her voice.

“I know you,” she said. “I know your parents; I knew your grandparents. You’re better than this…

The shame of that memory still burns my cheeks, sixty-five years on. Someday we’ll remember this era, with its vile attempts to link senseless violence to decent people, in the same way: we’ll be ashamed.

We’re better than this. We know we are.