Twenty shot including a US Congressmember; six dead including a federal judge; nutcase in custody. Shocking but in many ways sadly familiar. And the search for explanations becomes again sadly necessary. In this case, a clear pathway to tragedy may not be apparent, but the general climate that made this possible or inevitable is too obvious to ignore. In fact, this case seems to illustrate an important feature of the violent and belligerent political climate that is often claimed to exonerate, but in fact implicates, those who create it in the violence then perpetrated by others who have heeded that inflammatory rhetoric: individuals are responsible for their particular acts, but they are influenced by their environment, and those who create a climate encouraging violence as part of the political process are responsible for the consequences they put in train. And it goes without saying, those who do so are almost entirely, and overwhelmingly in terms of numbers and organization, from the right wing.
TRIGGER WARNING: Failure to take right-wing bullshit seriously. May cause discomfort among those who cannot bear to have their fantasies punctured.
The suspected shooter in this case harbored obviously right-wing obsessions, but was not consistent in this respect, and seems too weird to easily classify. But the link between his fixations and derangements, and the eliminationist and violent rhetoric of the right wing that shared many of his political obsessions, is obvious and significant.
According to news reports, although he had not previously done anything overtly violent, he was notoriously erratic to the point that people were frequently frightened of him, and the community college he attended received numerous complaints of his bizarre talk and disruptive behavior, until they finally found an excuse to bar him from campus. (I love this one: “Loughner read a poem [in a writing class] about bland tasks such as showering, going to the gym and riding the bus in wild ‘poetry slam’ style — ‘grabbing his crotch and jumping around the room.’” I’ve had students just as strange.) Even so, his behavior, while influenced by right-wing ideology, does not fall into a clear pattern. His Web site contained quotes apparently taken from a notorious far-right anti-government extremist. On YouTube he posted strange videos of burning the American flag and ranting about mind control and losing his rights; he listed a bunch of favorite books on totalitarian or extremist themes, including Brave New World and Mein Kampf, but, although those books are right-wing perennials, they are usually regarded as a warning against fascism in one case, and a program for it in the other – what we are to make of his penchant for Peter Pan is hard to say. He harbored the usual right-wing obsessions: anti-government, the gold standard, weird conspiracy theories and idiosyncratic interpretations of the Constitution. He ranted some sort of incomprehensible gibberish about how the government was engaged in mind control through grammar, and that the community college he attended was “unconstitutional”. A fellow student reported that “he was turning all shades of red and laughing” about a woman who read a written piece about abortion in a class, then said she was “just like a terrorist, she killed a baby”. He tried to join the Army but failed the drug test. He is described as an atheist, which is less common on the right wing (though more so among the libertarians and fascists/Randians/Nietzscheans), but also had some kind of weird voodoo shrine in his backyard, with a toy skull head and a little flower-pot altar with fruit and candles. He had the kind of meticulous obsession with language use and logical argumentation that a lot of disturbed people do – he apparently frequently spoke, and he wrote his farewell note, in the form of logical syllogisms, but the content of those arguments was often incomprehensible. He reportedly took a lot of drugs as his life began to deteriorate, and that probably didn’t help.
It’s easy to paint a picture of him as a right-wing nut: fascist literature, anti-government obsessions and unhinged political theories, abortion lunacy, the gold standard, stalking and shooting a Jewish Democratic politician and a judge. But in this case his violence may be more the product of internal tensions than overt political commitments. He apparently was angry that he had previously confronted Rep. Gifford at an event and she had not heeded his psychotic questioning (“What is government if words mean nothing?”), so he obsessed over her afterwards. It’s not clear that has as much to do with her particular politics as with his mental illness plain and simple. His grudge against her may have been personal rather than political in the broad sense. And a lot of his behavior was merely strange rather than illustrating some specific political allegiance.
But if the suspect in this case does not represent a particular political movement, the circumstances in which he acted, and which in many ways, materially and to some degree socially or politically, contributed to his violence, certainly do. There is no question that the American right wing has a long-standing violent streak, and has increasingly adopted violent language and imagery as political motivators. And it cannot be that that environment does not matter, that it does not alter the balance of forces that make political violence more or less acceptable or likely. To the extent that that is true, that climate of violent antagonism has to contribute to the likelihood of events like the Gifford shooting. It is too simplistic to draw a straight causal line between the general encouragement of violence by the right wing and particular acts of violence by those living in and responding to that environment, but it is more simplistic, and dishonest, to claim that those who encourage violence bear no responsibility simply because they did not personally perpetrate it.
To take the most obvious example: as Gail Collins points out, the gun the shooter used – a Glock 19 with a 31-round magazine, which he purchased new less than two months before the shooting – had been banned under gun-control regulations enacted during the Clinton administration. Those same regulations sent the gun nuts into a raving frenzy for years, and in no small part helped elect the Republican administration that overturned the ban and made the shooter’s gun legal for purchase. During this shooting, the shooter was stopped only when he had to reload and the fresh magazine was knocked away from him by bystanders – after he had shot 20 people with the bullets from a single magazine, without reloading. If the Clinton ban on high-capacity magazines had been in force, he would have purchased the gun with a magazine carrying less than a third of that load. It wouldn’t have been possible for him to shoot so many people before he was stopped while reloading, if the ban had been effective; the fact that it was ended directly made it possible for this suspect to buy a gun capable of loosing over 30 rounds into a crowd before anyone could intervene.
The violent and eliminationist rhetoric of the right is also clearly part and parcel of the real violence that pervades the political environment. Examples are many, and have been well-documented around the Web. Just the easiest examples: the Tea Party with its constant grandiose and belligerent references to the American Revolution, “watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants”, and talk of “Second-Amendment remedies”; the pervasive linkage of gun-rights groups to right-wing extremism and the notion that they are somehow under siege and must use violence to defend themselves from “tyrannies” as trivial as health insurance and changes of a few percent in [other people's!] income taxes; idiots like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck talking about “targeting” Democrats, pasting gun-sight graphics over maps of their Congressional districts, raving about revolutions and uprisings, and constantly brandishing guns while spouting stupidly belligerent rhetoric (it reaches weirdly creepy levels: somebody from the UK noticed that Palin has a team of editors that immediately pounce on the slightest critical comment on her Facebook page and remove it in less than two minutes, but left this one up for hours at least: “It’s ok. Christina Taylor Green [9-year-old student government member who came to the speech to meet a real politician] was probably going to end up a left wing bleeding heart liberal anyway. Hey, as ‘they’ say, what would you do if you had the chance to kill Hitler as a kid? Exactly.”); political candidates – virtually all Republicans – brandishing guns in campaign ads; gun-rights supporters staging deliberately provocative events, displaying guns openly at political speeches (one guy brought a gun to a Gifford rally and fumbled it onto the ground during the last campaign; somebody did the same at an Obama rally earlier) and holding their conventions timed to the anniversaries of the Waco assault and the Oklahoma City bombing (itself a memorialization of Waco by a right-wing anti-government apocalyptic); not to mention the standard-issue fantasy conspiracies about “jack-booted thugs” and war in the streets, and on and on. The judge who was killed this weekend had previously been the target of right-wing death threats: “In February , when U.S. District Judge John Roll presided over a $32 million civil-rights lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants against an Arizona rancher, the Marshals Service was anticipating the fallout. When Roll ruled the case could go forward, Gonzales said talk-radio shows cranked up the controversy and spurred audiences into making threats. In one afternoon, Roll logged more than 200 phone calls. Callers threatened the judge and his family. They posted personal information about Roll online. ‘They said, “We should kill him. He should be dead,”‘ Gonzales said.” Rep. Giffords had been subject to threats and violence throughout the campaign: her campaign office door was destroyed the day after she voted in favor of the healthcare bill; her Republican opponent held a campaign event in which “he invited his supporters to ‘Get on Target for Victory in November’. He asked them to ‘Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office – shoot a fully automatic M15 with Jesse Kelly’”; Gifford herself had objected to the gunsight graphics on Palin’s Facebook account: “We have the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve gotta realise there’s consequences to that action.” – Palin now denies there is any connection at all, but has removed the picture. (Palin also never raised the “surveyor’s mark” excuse until after the shooting, though the gunsight graphic had been widely discussed; Palin herself linked the picture from a message telling her supporters “Don’t Retreat – Instead, Reload!”. Now she claims it has nothing to do with guns.)
You can trace it back at least as far as Ronald Reagan’s declaration that “government is the problem” – the right wing has embraced an anti-civilization posture ever since, with increasingly violent rhetoric and imagery. Alex Pareene at Salon makes the links clearer; Jessica Valenti does a great job in the Guardian of calling out the right-wing’s macho rhetoric (“Man up!” “Man pants!”), and its particular use as a tactic by female wingers. David Corn noted the trend with frightening prescience almost a year ago: “these folks . . . are pushing a virulent strain of anti-government extremism that certainly could drive a body to take violent action. . . . [The] gun-rights radicals are downright dangerous. They talk of insurrection — and they do have guns.”. At that same time, the Violence Policy Center cataloged the links between gun-loving groups including the NRA, the Tea Party, and militia and extremist groups, and their common tactic of violent rhetoric and talk of the coming day of revolution and bloodshed.
There is no question this ideology, these fantasies and rhetoric and provocations, are rabble-rousing tools the right wing uses to inflame its base. And there is no question, too, that the violent imagery and open thirsting for bloodshed and a chance to finally find a use for all those guns is more than just rhetoric for many of the most extreme among them. They deny it, of course, but the denial is idiotic. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. The right wing invented the concept of the “Overton window”: the idea that political discourse takes place within a range of acceptable ideas, and that you can make ideas at one end of the range seem more acceptable by introducing more extremist ideas that move the “window” to place the previous extreme closer to the middle. Whether the extremists on the right are merely manipulating the discourse or really believe what they are saying, the effect is to make extremism seem mainstream; they do it because it works, and because it works, extremism does in fact become more widespread. The same is true for counter-measures like gun control: it’s true that the gun ban wouldn’t have made high-capacity magazines impossible to get, because the gun extremists fought to grandfather in the millions of existing ones – but it would have made them harder to get, and thus less likely to be in the possession of an unstable person who freely bought a gun over the counter and shot 20 people with it. The reason the gun nuts go nuts over restrictive measures like that is that they work – imperfectly, but somewhat. Claiming that gun regulations can’t work is clearly false; they wouldn’t be upset about them if that were true. The right wing does all these things for a reason; it’s absurd to pretend that they are meaningless when the rhetoric becomes reality, after spending decades investing in that very rhetoric because it’s so effective. That doesn’t make any particular right-winger personally responsible for this shooter’s precise acts, but it surely makes right-wing rhetoric, tactics, and beliefs responsible for creating a climate in which violent attacks on government figures could be seen as a normal act within the American political environment. That’s precisely what the right wing has been saying, for decades, and it can’t be an accident that some people take it seriously. It’s not surprising that the ones most likely to do so would be the disturbed or the irrational, but the fact that the one who first begin to respond to deliberately crazy and inflammatory rhetoric are crazy and arousable people does not make that rhetoric sane or responsible.
The right-wing defenses against these obvious observations range from ludicrous to offensive. Palin herself has claimed that the gunsight graphics she used to “target” (her words) politicians, including Gifford herself, are not actually gunsights but “surveyor’s symbols” – after she spent months using gun metaphors in that precise context. Nasty dipshit Bill Kristol has complained that making the obvious point that Palin’s “targeting” Gifford was inflammatory is a form of “McCarthyism” (a charge so bizarre it forces you to ask what he thinks McCarthyism actually is). Glenn Beck is now defending Palin on the grounds of an e-mail she sent him claiming “I hate violence” – this after, I note yet again, years of political grandstanding while waving guns and gibbering about “targets” and “revolution”, and trading off her son in the military. The idiotic “Vox Popoli” looks at the suspect’s entire profile – the right-wing slogans and political obsessions, the fascist literature, the pet economic theories and ranting about “unconstitutional” government – and describes him, solely, as an “atheist” (yes, an atheist with a shrine in his backyard). Michelle Malkin argues that the left is really at fault, and assembles pages and pages of examples running back 10 years – an obsession far outstripping this Arizona dude’s. The examples are mostly things like political cartoons and ordinary public demonstrations; almost none of them are actually violent – one is a political-thriller movie made during the Bush years that takes as a plot premise the assassination of Bush, and which she (and a lot of equally stupid right-wingers) managed to interpret as a claim that Bush should be assassinated (because The Godfather was a movie about how you should put horses’ heads in people’s beds) – my favorite was a cartoon of a chimpanzee taking a shit on John McCain’s head, which I, for one, wholeheartedly approve – another is a rap song from the New Black Panther Party (“bang for black power… hang a cracker”), further testimony to the amazing power of angry black people doing virtually nothing to send right-wingers totally out of their gourds. Some of the examples are sexist, some are angry, but almost all are just more of the many things Malkin doesn’t like, and none are of major organized political groups engaged in concerted campaigns to kill or intimidate political opponents (one is of two Marxists sitting in front of a bed sheet painted with the words “Smash the State” – yeah, that’s a likely threat). The stupidity of this exercise is easily illustrated: within that list of rappers, cartoonists, and people with hand-painted signs on sticks, find me 7 left-wingers who murdered doctors in cold blood because they provided some kind of healthcare the leftists disapproved of; find the leftists who bombed, torched, or poisoned with chemicals thousands of health clinics to prevent people from being treated there as they chose to do; find the liberal politicians who campaigned on a platform of violently overthrowing the government they were seeking to join while brandishing guns; find the organized network of left-wing groups that has stockpiled guns and launched violent assaults on local government figures as part of a secessionist coup; find the major left-wing political party that routinely talks about using guns as “remedies” and bloodletting in its official campaign functions . . . oh, hell, just dry up and blow away. Glenn Reynolds reaches an apogee of grotesque offensiveness by referring to the complaints against Palin – for putting “gunsights” on the liberal Jewish woman whom a right-wing nutcase enamored of Mein Kampf later shot in the back of the head – as a “blood libel”. Oh, yes, poor Sarah Palin – victim of anti-Semitism because people don’t like the fact that she targeted a Jew for death and one of her fellow travelers then shot the woman. Jesus, what an asshole.
The import, and the deliberate intent, of the violent, anti-government, eliminationist rhetoric that has pervaded the right wing for a generation now, and increasingly so today, is unmistakable. The fact that it influences people is hard to deny: the people who commit the violence are often members of the groups promoting the violent rhetoric, and in other cases study and quote it as justification for their acts, but more importantly, they use that rhetoric because it works - it motivates their followers and gives them a reason to think they’re involved in something important (“the Second American Revolution”!), and justifies them in the grievances and gun-waving they’ve wanted to see valorized for so long. This incident is a perfect illustration of the fact that the general political climate of hate and violent threats the right wing has created does not explain any particular act in response – in this case the suspected shooter was so disordered it’s hard to find any rational pattern in what is known of him so far – but that it also contributes to the circumstances that make violence possible and attractive – this suspect is a grab-bag of right-wing talking points and obsessions, chose as a target a left-wing politician who had literally been “targeted” for shooting by the right wing’s most prominent cheerleader, and used a gun that allowed an extraordinary amount of violence without pause, which had been made available in the market only by the deliberate and determined campaigning of the right wing.
Of course Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill Kristol, the Tea Party, the NRA, and the spectrum of right-wing loons they cater to did not, themselves, shoot those people in Arizona; of course they provided a motivation for doing so, deliberate hints that it should be done, and a political climate that made violence not just possible, not even respectable, but an actual campaign platform of the right wing and its candidates. Can we stop pretending that the rhetoric the right wing deliberately embraces because it works does not in fact have anything to do with the behavior of the people who listen to it – or that it won’t continue to do so as long as they continue to use it?