Incitement to violence
Second, we would clearly have a right-wing terrorist problem in this country even without the inflammatory rhetoric of Palin, Beck, and the rest. There was the Tiller murder; there were the Hutaree; there was McVeigh. Hate-filled paranoids are what they are, and they will do what they will do.
That being said, it is valid to call attention to that inflammatory rhetoric. Aside from Palin's famous gunsight map, she and others have used metaphors of gun violence in a political context ("don't retreat, reload", "Second Amendment solutions", etc.) so often that they certainly must have known that someone might take it as encouragement to actual violence. Yet they continued to do so. And don't try to tell me they didn't know; nobody's that naïve.
Palin in particular should know better, having been the target of vile and violent rhetoric during the 2008 Presidential campaign (and I condemned that at the time, too).
Free speech cannot be compromised. But free speech includes the right to call out purveyors of inflammatory rhetoric for what they are. If the Palins and Becks finally lose whatever status they have as "respectable" representatives of conservatism, it will be well deserved, and should be welcomed by rational conservatives.
Update: Progressive Eruptions has posted a history of right-wing terrorism since 2008 -- there are far more examples than most of us are familiar with.
Update 2: I begin to wonder if the most ancient and terrible bigotry of them all played a role here. Giffords is Jewish -- and it's reported that one of Loughner's favorite books is Mein Kampf.
Update 3: See worthwhile reads at Blue in the Bluegrass, Frank Schaeffer, Politics Plus, Frum Forum, PoliticusUSA, Liberal Values, and Pharyngula.
The dominant reaction in the right-wing blogosphere, for now, seems to be circling the wagons -- infuriated denial and outrage at the very suggestion that years of inflammatory rabble-rousing by the high-profile extremist fringe of the right could have been a contributing factor to this or earlier cases of murderous violence. But make no mistake: they know. The fury has a histrionic quality that can't quite hide the underlying panic. It's the vehemence of people trying to convince themselves as much as us. They know.