WASHINGTON — With 1.4 million people reading her every word on Facebook, a best-selling memoir, a slot on the nation's top-rated cable network and her every move scrutinized for presidential ambitions, Sarah Palin's megaphone is loud and commands a sizable audience.
So when Palin's political action committee singled out 20 Democratic members of Congress by using rifle scopes to "target" them on a map, it drew more attention than it might have had it not followed a week of overheated debate on health care, protesters shouting homophobic and racial epithets and spitting at members of Congress about to vote on the bill, and even bricks being thrown through lawmakers' office windows.
On Twitter, Palin told supporters disheartened by the health care vote: "Don't Retreat, instead - RELOAD!" She directed them to her Facebook page, where she used rifle scope-like crosshairs to identify the 20 seats she hopes SarahPAC will flip from blue to red. Those lawmakers she identified were among the Democrats who voted for the health care bill that was signed into law Tuesday — yet they were elected in GOP-dominated districts that supported her and Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential vote.
Until Friday, when she brought it up while campaigning for McCain's re-election, Palin had no comment on her political action committee's choice of imagery. But while stumping for McCain in his GOP primary in Arizona, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee called it a "ginned-up controversy."
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"We know violence isn't the answer," Palin said Friday. "When we take up our arms, we're talking about our vote. This B.S. coming from the lamestream media lately about us inciting violence, don't let the conversation be subverted, don't let a conversation like that get you off track."
Yet with her following among the Tea Party movement and other groups on the right — some of whose ideology is reminiscent of the militias of the mid-1990s — does Palin have more of a responsibility and an obligation to condemn the rhetoric and violence?
Yes, said Tony Stewart, a retired professor who for the past three decades has worked to free northern Idaho of its reputation as a haven for white supremacists and people with ties to anti-government groups. Stewart, the secretary of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, said he was troubled by the gun sights on Palin's map.
"I think they have a very, very serious responsibility to measure their words carefully," Stewart said of Palin and other high-profile leaders. "I'm deeply concerned about that type of trend in our country and what it could do to the fringe elements. When people are very divisive or extreme in their comments, unfortunately, our history has taught us that some individuals who are on the very fringe — and are oftentimes not even stable — may take that and engage in violence."
Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who co-hosts the talk show "The View" and campaigned for Palin in Florida, on the show this week called Palin's gun sight imagery "despicable." Palin's choice of words also drew criticism from a fellow Alaskan: Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat.
"I think people like Sarah and others need to be careful in their tones and not send the wrong message out there," Begich told Anchorage television station KTVA. "In my case, I probably wouldn't have said those comments."
Military language is common in political campaigns — journalists write of "war chests" and candidates talk speak of "targeting" their opponents and even "firing back" at them. Violent imagery is nothing new in U.S. political history, either, and it occurs on the right and the left. An effigy of former President George W. Bush was burned as recently as October when he gave a speech in Canada.
However, Heidi Beirich, the director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and hate groups, said she thinks Palin went a step too far.
"The gun sight: It's clear what it means," Beirich said of the map on Palin's Facebook page. "It doesn't really get more violent than that. Even if it was meant in some kind of twisted jest, certainly the time to take it down has more than passed."
Palin this week refused to back away from the rifle-scope imagery or her use of the term "reload." She did, however, emphasize that violence was unacceptable. When someone at McCain's rally shouted out that voting was the answer, not violence, Palin's response was immediate.
"Amen, brother, that's what you do it with," she said. "With your vote."
McCain himself defended her language earlier in the week, telling NBC that the rhetoric of targeted districts has been around "as long as I've been in politics."
"Those words have been used throughout of my political career," McCain added. "There are targeted districts, and there are areas that we call battleground states, and so please, that rhetoric and kind of language is just part of the political lexicon. There is no place for threats of violence or anything else, but to say that someone is in a battleground state is not originated today."
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