Once upon a time, there was a king who wanted to have more freedom than the church would allow. In fact, a certain clergy man had become quite powerful in his own right and was challenging the king’s authority, but the king could not, outright, do anything.  At one point, exasperated beyond control, the king is thought to have said “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest” and within a week or so, four of his knights had ridden to Canterbury and killed the meddlesome priest, right in the nave of the cathedral.

Thomas Becket became a martyr, which wasn’t quite what Henry II had planned; in fact, Henry had to do significant penance for the murder—a murder in which he took no direct part.

I doubt that Sarah Palin knows the story of Thomas Becket, or Henry II, or has read much Shakespeare. But what she and her minions—her versions of Henry’s over zealous knights—should perhaps realize is that rhetoric matters.  Sarah doesn’t seem to have much respect for language (“refudiate,” anyone?) or for “book learning,” so maybe she and her peeps had no concern about the ripple effect of putting targets over various congressional districts, on her now infamous “take back the 20” map.  Perhaps the language on her website isn’t meant to inflame, despite using words like “fire,” and “take aim” and “hold them accountable;” or her assertion that the mid-term elections are just the “first salvo in a fight.”

In fact, I hope she is that ignorant, that she is genuinely shocked shocked that anyone would take her language as a license to hunt down and kill public representatives. I hope she’s that ignorant because if she’s not, there is no limit to the depth of her cynicism and malice.

And maybe it is all just an unhappy coincidence; maybe the man with the gun had no political motive (or maybe he was trying to prove himself to Sarah out of love, ala Mark David Chapman).  Maybe this Arizona shooter was just another in a long line of lunatics with guns. God knows that making it easy for lunatics to get their hands on weaponry has a long tradition in this country–similar to the long tradition we have of demagogues who know how to fuel the flame of an unsteady fringe.

But as long as lunatics have ready access to guns, and as long as public figures use the rhetoric of violence to express disagreement, then what, really, can we expect?

Henry II initially insisted that he had no part in Becket’s murder but eventually he walked barefoot into Canterbury, knelt in front of the cathedral, and allowed himself to be flogged by the monks.

Not that I’m recommending a return to public flogging.  I’m just saying that’s what Henry did.

Words have power.  That’s why one of the first things a dictator does, upon wresting control of a country, is to get rid of all those pesky writers who might criticize the government.

For Palin (and Glenn Beck and all the other foaming-mouth fomenters) to assume that her words aren’t fueling a violent fire, if not in Arizona then elsewhere—maybe in your congressional district, maybe in mine—then she’s fooling herself and trying to fool us.