Sarah Palin: close to God and close to guns

He breathed fire, lashed out at evil, and young men listened and went out to kill. Ian Paisley was not a popular fellow among the killers whom BBC journalist Peter Taylor interviewed for his TV series, Loyalists, over a decade ago.

The Reverend Ian is a man of peace these days, but I couldn't help thinking about him after the massacre in a Tucson, Arizona shopping centre last week. Six people, including a nine-year-old girl, were shot dead by a local man. The apparent target, Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, survived despite being shot in the head.

It's a long way from the murderous environment of Northern Ireland in the second half of the last century to the American west today, but some things in politics never change.

Some of the former terrorists in Taylor's programme cited Paisley's speeches as being their inspiration to kill Catholics. Paisley's towering rhetoric and fear-mongering prompted them to take up arms to protect Ulster from the Papists. They killed and spread terror, but the blood never found its way to Paisley's hands. He personally didn't resort to violence. As a man of God, he could claim to abhor violence. He just told it like it was going to be if the Papists had their way, and after that, well, if the Heavens rained terror, it was nothing to do with him.

Some of those who resorted to killing, such as David Irvine and Billy Giles, who were later involved in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, despised Paisley for how he conducted himself, preaching hate and then stepping back as others rushed into the breach.

The shooting in Arizona has once again thrown the gun laws in the USA into sharp relief. The gunman, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, may be mentally ill, but even if not clinically so, all accounts suggest he was the kind of fella whose demeanour should set off alarm bells. Yet less than six weeks before the killings, he purchased a Glock pistol in a sports shop. On the morning of the killings he bought more bullets for the pistol at a Wal-Mart store.

Legally, he was allowed to carry the weapon in a concealed manner. The second amendment of the US constitution provides for the bearing of arms. The law in Arizona was changed last March because the existing one was regarded as too restrictive.

"I believe this law not only protects the second amendment rights but restores those rights as well," state governor Jan Brewer said, when signing the new measure into law. With leaders like these, who needs nut jobs?

Three states now permit the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit. This is the backdrop against which political passions are being inflamed, hate is being preached, and the president is being cast as a dangerous socialist, who may not even be American.

Head of the queue with the rhetoric is the Tea Party, and its poster girl, Sarah Palin. She is a strange bedfellow for the earlier incarnation of Ian Paisley, but the similarities are unmistakable.

Both positioned themselves as being close to God. Both are intent on destroying not just the other side, but the moderate representatives of their own tradition – unionism in Paisley's case, the Republican Party in Palin's.

Both had a capacity to stir up serious passions. In Paisley's day, flowing rhetoric, delivered with high oratorical skills, was the best form of communication. In today's America, anti-intellectualism is all the rage. It's smart to play dumb, a role that Palin manages with ease. Both operated in societies where guns were easy to come by and young men had plenty to fuel their anger.

The issue that most exercised the Tea Party last year was Obama's efforts to introduce a healthcare system that would make America less hostile for those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

After Obama made a crucial speech on the issue last March, Palin responded in kind. She finished up her speech with the line, "Now is not the time to retreat. It's time to reload."

On her website, she presented a graphic of the country. In 20 states where the Republicans won the vote in the last presidential election, there were crosshairs, and names attached of Democrats in congress who were voting for Obama's healthcare bill.

These are the kind of states where people are most in love with their guns. The attack on Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of the six innocents was an outrage waiting to happen.

Palin has condemned the shooting. Like the Reverend Ian of old, she has no truck with violence. She is just a politician trying to represent the views of her followers. She is passionate in her beliefs. She bears no responsibility for nut jobs who interpret her rhetoric as a call to arms. She is just a hockey mom, trying to save the country she loves.

Her reaction suggests there will be no let-up. She accused those who linked her behaviour to the killings as being engaged in a "blood libel", a term that is highly offensive to Jews.

"There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal," she said. "And they claim that political debate has got more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those 'calm days' when political figures literally settled their differences with duelling pistols?"

There's no getting away from guns for Palin. In seeking to justify herself, she is referring to a time when a man could be hanged for stealing a horse.

Maybe she should take a leaf from Paisley's book. He kept himself busy at the outer ends of the political spectrum, lashing out at everybody who sought to compromise, appealing to the worst instincts in people, until such time as he got his way. Now look at him. He is the grand old man of peace, praying, no doubt, for all those who came to a violent and premature death at the hands of men of violence. Go Sarah, go.