The late Judge John Roll. (photo provided by the Federal 9th CIrcuit Court via The TImes Leader)

Max Bumenthal writes in the Guardian today of how he was called to Arizona to testify in a case before Judge Roll’s court.  It was the immigration case that caused Roll and his family to receive hundreds of death threats, and be given a protection detail for a month. Roll was a conservative,  appointed by George Bush I, but he had tremendous respect for the rule of law, as Max relates:

A bizarre federal programme, Operation Streamline, helps to pump federal money into the local economy: desperate migrants serve as commodities; 75 of them are marched in chains into a federal courtroom in Tucson each day, compelled to plead guilty en masse to entering the country, then transported to a corporate-owned prison in rural Pinal County before being deported on private charter flights. Several prisoners have died in the jail, including one who was apparently refused treatment while writhing in pain with testicular cancer. But incarcerating Mexican migrants has brought 1,500 new jobs to the previously depressed area, making it one of Money Magazine‘s top employment growth sites. (The programme costs American taxpayers $11m a month.)

When President Obama took office, Arizona’s anti-immigrant right fused with extreme elements of the religious right under the Tea Party banner. In August 2009, a young man called Chris Broughton openly carried an AR-15 assault rifle and a handgun to an Obama rally in Phoenix. The night before, Broughton had attended a sermon called “Why I hate Barack Obama” given by the Rev Steven Anderson, a local Tea Party activist. Anderson declared that that night he was going to “pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell”

I was summoned back to Arizona in February 2009 to testify as a prosecution witness in a civil trial against Barnett, who was being sued by a group of migrants for physically attacking them while holding them at gunpoint and threatening to kill them. Judge Roll had certified the trial, an act that brought in hundreds of threats against him and his family from local anti-immigrant fanatics, forcing him to live under 24-hour protective guard. He was a conservative Republican, but he was committed to the rule of law.

I told the jury about how Barnett had bragged to me about taking migrants hostage. In the end, the jurors delivered justice, forcing Barnett to pay his victims $73,000 in damages. Roll politely excused me from his courtroom, I did not see him again until his face appeared in newscasts about his killing during the assassination attempt on Giffords.

Roll spent a significant part of his judicial career in Arizona’s climate of violent extremism, and he died in it too. He was an innocent bystander, and not the only victim. Unfortunately, he may not be the last one either.

I don’t care if they find Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map in Jared Loughner’s bedroom.  She didn’t cause him to do what he did.  What she did do, undeniably and indisputably, was act irresponsibly in the midst of an extremely volatile situation.  On the fifth straight day of violence and threats against members of Congress over the health care bill, when everyone from John Boehner on down was calling for the attacks to stop, Palin released her “crosshairs” map and tried to prove she was not a “weenie” by telling people to “reload, not retreat.” [cont'd.]

And after the shooting happened, as David Frum notes, there were any number of responses Palin could have chosen to try and reasonably walk back what she had done.  Instead, she chose just about the worst possible one:  send a staffer out to lie for her and claim it never occurred to her that anyone would consider them “crosshairs.”

Likewise, threats poured down on John Roll after he ruled that the Barnett immigration case could go forward. When Clarence Dupnik was talking about dangerous talk radio shows, he was in all likelihood referring to the local talk radio shows that “cranked up the controversy and spurred audiences into making threats” against Roll at the time.

But I think we miss the mark when we try to make overly broad arguments about how much responsibility Sarah Palin or any other media or political figure may have in determining someone’s actions.  It’s a weak argument, and it allows the conversation to get dragged onto nebulous turf.  True culpability gets buried in demagoguery.  Because in this specific instance, the radio talk show hosts were egging on people in Arizona who were already making death threats against Roll when he allowed the trial to go forward.  They acted irresponsibly in the same way Sarah Palin did when they didn’t let up.  No one can argue that they didn’t.

When you realize you’re pouring gasoline on an already volatile situation you stop.  They didn’t.  Objection to that should be beyond ideology.  It’s stupid and reckless behavior, and there’s no reason to do it when you realize you’re just egging people on who are already stepping over the boundaries into lawlessness.

Conservatives have every right to be proud of Roll’s commitment to justice, and his willingness to subject himself and his family to threats of violence in order to do the right thing.  He showed bravery in the same way bystander Patricia Maisch did when she grabbed Loughner’s clip, and that David Hernandez did when he ran towards the shooting instead of away from it when Gabby Giffords was shot.  And there’s a lot more high ground talking about his admirable commitment to the rule of law then there is trying to score political points and exploit an already tragic situation by defending the indefensible.