Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik‘s immediate reaction to last weekend’s Gabrielle Gifford shooting was that Tea Party rage had inflamed the atmosphere in Arizona and probably influenced unstable hinterland types like Jared Lee Loughner. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous,” he said — a reasonable view from my perspective. And yet the right’s big-lie machine managed to discredit Dupnik’s view within 48 hours.

Their counter-attack, as always, was swift, focused, adamant, well-coordinated. “Who, us?,” they basically said. “The left is just as bad if not worse for charging that the furious, violence-implying, armed-militia tone of rightwing rhetoric since Obama’s inauguration had anything do with this nutter’s actions…how dare they suggest that we’re anything but blameless? We can inflame the political conversation as much as we want to with cries of ‘reload’ and references to Second Amendment solutions and crosshair symbols. That is our right as exceptional Americans!”

Truthout‘s Steve Striffler noted two days ago that “we are now told that because [Loughner’s] political views do not fall seamlessly into a neat box labeled ‘left’ or ‘right’ that they were irrelevant for understanding events in Arizona and, by connection, for understanding the current political situation in the United States. [For] holding muddled political views does not in and of itself necessarily make Loughner mentally ill, unstable, crazy, or even particularly unusual. It makes him American and peculiarly so.”

The likelihood that Tuscon shooter Jared Lee Loughner “was…insane, with no coherent ideological agenda, does not mean that a climate of antigovernment hysteria has no effect on him or other crazed loners out there,” says N.Y Times columnist Frank Rich in today’s column. “Nor does Loughner’s insanity mitigate the surge in unhinged political zealots acting out over the last two years.

“President Obama said, correctly, on Wednesday that “a simple lack of civility” didn’t cause the Tucson tragedy. It didn’t cause these other incidents either. What did inform the earlier violence — including the vandalism at Giffords’s office — was an antigovernment radicalism as rabid on the right now as it was on the left in the late 1960s.

“A few unexpected voices have expressed alarm. After an antigovernment gunman struck at Washington’s Holocaust museum in June 2009, Shepard Smith of Fox News noted the rising vitriol in his e-mail traffic and warned on air that more ‘amped up’ Americans could be “getting the gun out.” The former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum took on the ‘reckless right’ that August, citing the incident at the Giffords Safeway event. But when a Department of Homeland Security report warned of far-right extremism and attacks by ‘lone wolves’ that same summer, Gingrich called it a smear and John Boehner demanded an apology.

“Last week a conservative presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty, timidly said it wouldn’t be his ‘style’ to use Palin’s target map, but was savaged so viciously by his own camp that he immediately retreated. A senior Republican senator told Politico that he saw the Tucson bloodbath as a ‘cautionary tale’ for his party, yet refused to be named.

“What are they and their peers so afraid of? No doubt that someone might reload — the same fears that prompted Gabrielle Giffords to speak up, calmly but firmly, last March. Unless and until they can match her courage and speak out too, it’s hard to see what will change.”