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How the Right's Rhetoric Fueled the Actions of Arizona's Mass Murderer

It's too soon to say what motivated the man apprehended for the shooting. But the Tea Party culture of political intimidation affirmed his violent impulses.

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"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told reporters, according to The Huffington Post. "And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry." Dupnik is a Democrat who is opposed to Arizona's controversial law that allows law enforcement to demand proof of legal citizenship from anyone at any time. (The law is currently stayed, pending a court decision on its constitutionality.)

Saturday was not the first time that Rep. Giffords, or John M. Roll, the federal district judge who died in today's attack, faced violence in the course of their work. During the battle for health-care reform, Giffords faced death threats, and after her vote for the health-care bill, her district office was vandalized. Rolls, too, faced death threats for his decision to let a law suit go forward brought by a group of Mexicans against several Arizona ranchers, and spent a month under federal protection by U.S. Marshals.

None of these threats, nor the incendiary packages that combusted in the postal facilities on Friday, are attributed to Loughner. In fact, the U.S. Marshals identified four separate individuals who made death threats against Roll in 2009, according to the Arizona Republic.

Loughner may have severe mental health issues, but his impulses were surely affirmed by a right-wing culture that revels in intimidating tactics and violent rhetoric. Remember Sarah Palin's mid-term campaign map of congressional districts marked with the cross-hairs of rifle sights -- districts where, in Palin's view, Democrats needed to be taken out (to borrow a term from Harry Reid's Tea Party-branded opponent, Sharron Angle)? Gabrielle Giffords was named in the key to the map, her district marked as a target. Glenn Beck joked about his desire to poison then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

To call Jared Lee Loughner a Tea Partier is not a credible claim. But the culture of political intimidation that surrounds Democratic politicians is reinforced by more than a few Tea Party-identified leaders. It is not enough for leading Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner and John McCain, the senior Arizona senator and former presidential candidate, to denounce the attack on Giffords, Roll, and 17 other Arizona citizens, six of whom died, including a little girl. They must call on media figures like Beck, political leaders such as Palin, and figures such as Pratt and Broun, to end the gruesome rhetoric. After all, words do have consequences.

 

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.