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Crosshairs and Targets: Innocent Symbols or Incendiary Iconography? [Updated]

A map that placed crosshairs over Gabrielle Giffords's Congressional district raises issues about inflammatory political rhetoric.

On Saturday morning, Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot along with at least a dozen other people, six of whom were killed, during a neighborhood meet-and-greet at a Tucson supermarket, according to various still-developing reports. The suspect, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, is in custody and while Loughner's YouTube videos are disturbing, his motive is not yet known. Nonetheless, political pundits are using the opportunity to call attention to this map created by Sarah Palin's political action committee called Take Back the 20.

When the site was launched to fight the health-care reform bill, Palin suffered criticism for choosing to use crosshairs to pinpoint the 20 districts she hoped would be won back by Republicans in the midterm elections. Giffords was one of the representatives running for re-election who was marked by Palin's map crosshairs, and Palin endorsed her challenger, Jesse Kelly. According to an interview on MSNBC, Giffords herself had expressed concern about the map and what she perceived to be a reference to violence.
Palin's map doesn't seem to be the only example of inferred gun violence directed at Giffords. A Daily Kos commenter reports another disturbing set of images from the campaign of Giffords's opponent in the last Congressional race. A rally for Kelly featured an event where supporters could shoot M16s with the candidate at a rifle range. It includes the words "get on target" and the unfortunate message "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office."

Giffords had also been the victim of vandalism due to her support of health-care reform. According to The New York Times, the windows of Giffords's Tucson office were either broken or shot out immediately after the bill passed in the House.

Rebecca Mansour, who works on Palin's PAC team, appeared on a radio talk show Saturday and told the story behind the map's design. She said the graphic was contracted out to a "political graphics professional" and called the crosshairs a surveyor's symbol. "We never, ever, ever intended it to be gun sights," she said.

The crosshair, or reticle, is used in any telescopic device, from a microscope to a camera. In mapping iconography it can signify the view seen through surveyors' equipment. It is found in astronomy, and in interface design, like in graphics software like Photoshop and on older versions of the iPhone Google Maps application.

According to this diagram of reticles in a Wikipedia article, some of the same crosshair designs can be used for both surveying equipment and rifles, since they're both concerned with measuring distance, or rangefinding.

As a counterpoint to the debate, some bloggers are pointing to a map found on the Democrat Leadership Committee's site that used targets to signify states which Democrats should focus on winning after the 2004 election.

Targets and crosshairs are no strangers to political debate. Over at The Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz has posted a thoughtful piece noting that even if Palin saw her symbols as bullseyes, as she called them in a now-famous Tweet, military terminology and symbols like "targets" and "battlegrounds" have always been used in political campaigns. But should it be the norm? At The New York Times, Matt Bai explores that topic further, and what he thinks is increasingly-careless language and symbolism that surrounds political discourse.

With the heightened debate about the map came a call for both sides to curb inflammatory rhetoric, as noted by Slate's Jack Shafer. At a press conference on Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik specifically mentioned "the anger, the hatred" that pervades American politics: "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government." Dupnik, who famously refused to enforce Arizona's immigration law, said that Arizona had "become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

And there may be some real legal repercussions for designers who create this imagery in the future. According to a post at The New York Times's The Caucus blog, Pennsylvania Representative Bob Brady said he wants to introduce a bill that would ban incendiary symbols like crosshairs from campaign graphics. "This is a major alarm going off," he said. "We need to tone down this rhetoric."

A popular Tweet from Brian Frank that was posted Sunday added some perspective: "I want to reiterate this: if politicians deny their negative rhetoric can cause harm, what are we to think of their positive rhetoric?"

This article was updated on Sunday, January 9 to incorporate developing news.

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