The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the collateral killing of Judge John Roll and several others has generated a great deal of commentary. Much of it deals with the capacity of incendiary political rhetoric to trigger violence from those who are on the fringes of sanity or utterly unhinged.
Israelis are comparing the event to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. That followed a period during which the prime minister was portrayed as a traitor or - more moderately - as selling out vital national interests. Extremist rabbis preached ancient doctrines that justified killing a Jew on the basis of higher law. Web sites and political speeches linked to Sarah Palin and other Republicans were not all that different from the speeches given at prominent rallies by leading Likud politicians in the weeks before Rabin''s killing by a well educated, and apparently sane religious Jews.
An intriguing feature of the coverage about Giffords appears in its concern with, or avoidance of religious affiliation and political extremism. One should be careful about reading too much from the media, but some comparisons of mainstream American and Israeli or Jewish treatments are at least suggestive of wider issues in American politics.
The initial stories from the major American media either ignored Giffords'' Jewish affiliation, or treated it as just another aspect of her identity. Israeli and Jewish American sources tended to put it in their first paragraph. Some Israeli publications showed anxiety about staying on the right side of Orthodox rabbis by referring to Giffords as someone with a "Jewish background." Others simply identified her as Jewish, or described her sense of Jewish identity, affinity to Israel and membership to a Reform congregation.
As early as the first day, Israeli or Jewish sources also identified Jared Lee Loughner as a young man who listed Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto as among his favorite writings. One would have to look hard to find anyone schooled in political thought who joined those two items as equally inspiring. The combination of Marx and Hitler adds to the image widely reported about the shooter as a strange man prone to outbursts in class and suspended from a Community College pending psychiatric evaluation.
Mainline American sources and government officials are avoiding, or treating in the most circumspect manner the issue of anti-Semitism. Police and prosecutors are staying away from the description of this as a hate crime. The New York Times website has a prominent article headlined "Federal Charges Cite Assassination Plan," which is squeaky clean of reference to ethnicity or religion.
National Public Radio''s web site reported about an FBI official who was asked about possible motives after the shooter was arraigned. The response: "It''s a bit too early to speculate."
This resembles the efforts of ranking politicians to do everything they can to absolve Islam from any responsibility for terror. The distance from ethnic profiling in airports and other sensitive places insisted upon by officials concerned about security in the context of what is politically correct.
All this is understandable in the case of a society that has been multi-ethnic since its founding, and has invested the most recent half-century working to cleanse racism from its culture.
There are costs. The awkward avoiding of realities means that lots of us old folks with European faces have to go through the same screening as dusky young people with Middle Eastern accents. Those who protest efforts to boycott Israeli products or personnel do what they can to avoid accusing their opponents of anti-Semitism - and Mein Kampf is just another item on a reading list.