U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, left, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin

Within hours of the Saturday, Jan. 8, shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and 14 — including the gunman’s apparent primary target, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — wounded, a nationwide discussion — perhaps “argument” is a better word — had begun over the role that extreme political rhetoric had played in the massacre. And one of the first names to pop up in that discussion was that of Sarah Palin, the former Alaskan governor and former vice presidential candidate turned rightwing political pundit and reality TV star.

Giffords was one of the Democratic members of Congress who, in a campaign flyer posted on Palin’s website, had been “targeted” for defeat by Republicans in last November’s elections. The flyer included a graphic of a map with the “targeted’ districts marked by gunsights. That flyer along with Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” comment, along with Nevada rightwinger Sharon Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies” comment, have gotten a lot of play in the days since the shootings.

Palin’s people took the flyer off the website within hours of the shooting, but it wasn’t until today that Palin herself spoke up, releasing a video in which she declares that political rhetoric had nothing to do with the shootings in Arizona  and decrying the “irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame” for the massacre to her and other rightwing pundits. The responsibility, Palin declared, lies solely with the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner.

Since we don’t know yet — and really may never know — what prompted this young man to open fire at Giffords and the others on Saturday, I find myself agreeing with Palin, at least a little. Let’s get our facts straight, so to speak, before we start laying blame.

But at the same time, I think Sarah Palin — and every one of us — should stand up and acknowledge that our words can cause great harm. Whether or not Jared Lee Laughner went after Congresswoman Giffords because of something some politician or pundit said, the extreme and violent rhetoric can cause — AND HAS CAUSED — harm.

When, you might ask, have mere words caused harm? Oh, look back, let’s say, three to four months when all those teenagers committed suicide in such a short period of time after being bullied and called names. Or for an even more apt example, look back to the presidential campaign of 2008 when extreme rhetoric from one candidate put another candidate in harm’s way.

Back at the end of 2008, no less than the U.S. Secret Service said that Sarah Palin’s attacks on Barack Obama’s patriotism “provoked a spike in death threats against the future president,” according to a report published at the time in the British newspaper The Telegraph:

“The Republican vice presidential candidate attracted criticism for accusing Mr Obama of ‘palling around with terrorists,’ citing his association with the sixties radical William Ayers.

“The attacks provoked a near lynch mob atmosphere at her rallies, with supporters yelling ‘terrorist’ and ‘kill him’ until the McCain campaign ordered her to tone down the rhetoric.

“But it has now emerged that her demagogic tone may have unintentionally encouraged white supremacists to go even further.

“The Secret Service warned the Obama family in mid October that they had seen a dramatic increase in the number of threats against the Democratic candidate, coinciding with Mrs Palin’s attacks.”

Okay, so maybe it’s just me, but I would say that is pretty clear evidence that violent rhetoric can and does encourage violent behavior. So whether Palin’s gunsights flyer or Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies” or any other politically-charged statements prompted Laughner to shoot Giffords, such speech is undoubtedly dangerous.

And instead of wasting all our time and energy engaging in round after round of finger pointing and name calling and “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I” childishness, I say that it’s time we all take responsibility for our behavior and our words and start acting like grown-ups for a damn change.

(And by the way, thanks to Dawn Meifert for the link to The Telegraph article.)