It’s not the Tucson Tragedy, as MSNBC keeps terming it. This was a fucking assassination attempt. I’d hope our ostensibly liberal cable news station would call it what it is.
Anthony McCarthy (at Echidne’s place) criticized this trope as soon as it emerged. I’d add that a tragedy is an event that was inevitable because of someone’s personal flaws or their star-crossed destinies. (Think: Romeo and Juliet, not Lee Harvey Oswald.) This was not just a crime, as Anthony so rightly states. It was a political crime. It was an assassination attempt.
Yes, the alleged gunman seems to be deeply disturbed, but that in itself is an incomplete explanation. Why did he fixate on political figures? What fed his paranoia about the government?
In the town next to mine, there lives an intelligent young man who believes that the government (the CIA?) has implanted a chip in his brain and is attempting to control him. He’s been in and out of inpatient mental care. When he’s out, he occasionally emails all of his acquaintances about the government’s nefarious plots, and he regularly calls into a local talk radio show. (I know this because regular Kittywampus commenter Hydraargyrum listens occasionally to said show, and my husband is on the email distribution list.)
This man has never threatened anyone, as far as I know. I also fully recognize that the vast majority of mentally ill people will never pose a danger. My point, rather, is that disturbed people don’t live in a vacuum. They inhabit the same culture as the rest of us. They soak up the political atmosphere. When the climate is charged with hate, paranoia, racism, and kneejerk pro-gun rhetoric, that’s what they’re likely to imbibe. Living in Arizona, a state famous of late for its institutionalized hostility toward immigrants, Jared Loughner was liable to absorb all of these toxins.
When I heard about the assassination attempt late on Saturday, William Manchester’s description of Dallas in fall 1963 shimmered in my recollection. I’d read the passage in Vanity Fair a few weeks ago:
“In that third year of the Kennedy presidency,” Manchester wrote, “a kind of fever lay over Dallas country. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed, ‘Impeach Earl Warren.’ Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas.…Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy’s name was booed in classrooms; corporate junior executives were required to attend radical seminars.” A retired major general ran the American flag upside down, deriding it as “the Democrat flag.” A wanted poster with J.F.K.’s face on it was circulated, announcing “this man is Wanted” for—among other things—“turning the sovereignty of the US over to the Communist controlled United Nations” and appointing “anti-Christians … aliens and known Communists” to federal offices. And a full-page advertisement had appeared the day of the assassination in The Dallas Morning News accusing Kennedy of making a secret deal with the Communist Party; when it was shown to the president, he was appalled. He turned to Jacqueline, who was visibly upset, and said, “Oh, you know, we’re heading into nut country today.”
Manchester discovered that in a wealthy Dallas suburb, when told that President Kennedy had been murdered in their city, the students in a fourth-grade class burst into applause. …
(The whole article, which appeared in October 2009, is worth a read, though off-topic for this post. Andrew Sullivan also posted a version of this passage on his blog.)
Like Lee Harvey Oswald, Jared Loughner can’t be easily pegged to a coherent political philosophy. Oswald had communist sympathies, but his attempt to defect foundered when he discovered he didn’t much enjoy the Soviet way of life. I’m not credulous enough to believe that the Warren Commission uncovered the whole truth, but it seems hard to dispute their conclusion that “His deep-rooted resentment of all authority which was expressed in a hostility toward every society in which he lived …” Similarly, Loughner’s YouTube rantings seem to revolve around anti-authority, anti-government sentiments, many of them obviously delusional. Loughner seems to be of no organized political party – but if you think the government is controlling our minds through grammar, Loughner is just your guy.
Obviously the Tea Party is not fixated on grammar. Nor is Glen Beck. Ditto, even more obviously, for Sarah Palin. (Hmm … The grammatical deficits or wingnuts: coincidence, or a defense against mind control?)
However, they and the other new American reactionaries (one can’t fairly call them conservatives) have plenty of nasty things to say about how government wants to control our lives.
American reactionaries also have broken new ground in bringing weapons to political rallies. When that taboo was broached in August 2009, I thought that violence was inevitable. Dave Neiwert, who has been sounding the alarm on eliminationist rhetoric for far longer, has reconstructed specific threats aimed at Gabrielle Giffords, including a gun found at one of her previous public appearances.
We’re in the midst of a cultural struggle for how to understand and frame this event. I’m still trying to shut up and listen, instead of blogging my every passing thought. (Hence I’m only getting to my “initial thoughts” two days later, which for a trained historian is actually light-speed.) I think all of us should refrain from snap judgments. I’m prepared to be persuaded by good arguments that Loughner had no political motives whatsoever.
If, however, the wingnut narrative – “He’s just a whackjob!” – prevails, hate speech will continue unabated. It will continue to shape the worldviews of disturbed individuals. And violence will again be inevitable.
My heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones.
The least we owe them is to put an end to our climate of hate.
And while we’re at it, let’s finally adopt sane gun laws, starting with mandatory nationwide background checks and a ban on the ammo for guns like the one Loughner used.
(In case you haven’t seen this – not all of my students had – here is the graphic that Sarah Palin has now removed from her Facebook page. Note that one of the crosshairs targeted Gabby Giffords. Even if Loughner never saw it, this is still vile, eliminationist hate speech.)
Update, 1:20 a.m., 11 January 2011: Rachel Maddow just had a terrific discussion of the different types of assassins – including those with incoherent political motives – with my favorite senator, Sherrod Brown. Watch:
Update, 12:50 p.m., 12 January 2011: Eric Boehlert at Media Matters has an excellent piece on “the right’s rising tide of violent rhetoric.” Essential reading. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center offers a sober, balanced assessment of Loughner’s incoherent ideology that suggests Loughner’s most salient belief is a “‘smash the state’ attitude.”