News & Politics

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.

It's too soon to say what, exactly, motivated the man apprehended for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 18 others outside a Tucson supermarket on Saturday. All we really know about Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old alleged shooter, is that he is apparently a profoundly disturbed young man whose paranoia involves some indecipherable notions about the U.S. Constitution.

Some say Loughner regards himself as a leftist, others chart him on the right. But the screen shots of his (now deleted) MySpace page and the incomprehensible videos he posted on YouTube -- as well as another video he named a "favorite" that shows a masked, hooded figure burning an American flag to a soundtrack of a chant, "Let the bodies hit the floor" -- seem short on coherent ideology and long on violent impulse.

So to those who would like to attribute Loughner's actions to the Tea Party, I say, hold up; take a breath. But to those on the far right, and to the more mainstream right-wingers who fail to condemn the poisonous claims of the far right, I say, you're hardly off the hook.

Had the vitriolic rhetoric that today shapes Arizona's political landscape (and, indeed, our national landscape) never come to call, Loughner may have found a different reason to go on a killing spree. But that vitriol does exist as a powerful prompt to the paranoid, and those who publicly deem war on the federal government a patriot's duty should today be doing some soul-searching.

On April 19, 2010 -- the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City -- Bill Clinton, who was president at the time of the attack, published an op-ed in the New York Times, both commemorating the dead and speaking to his fears of another such attack in the future. Note that the Oklahoma City attack came as right-wing leaders expressed outrage at the actions of federal law enforcement at Waco and Ruby Ridge, but also demonized federal workers as a class.

"As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters," Clinton wrote, "we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged."

On the day that op-ed was published, Clinton joined Janet Napolitano, the current secretary of homeland security, at a ceremony at the memorial erected on the site of the building.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., another sort of commemoration was taking place at the foot of the Washington Monument. There, a couple of thousand right-wing gun-rights advocates gathered to hear from a roster of speakers, several of whom spewed pure venom, including Larry Pratt, president of Gun Owners of America, and Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga.

From my original report on the gathering:

Broun, a Republican, sees civil war looming on the horizon. "Fellow patriots, we have a lot of domestic enemies of the Constitution, and they're right down the Mall, in the Congress of the United States -- and right down Independence Avenue in the White House that belongs to us," Broun told the crowd. "It's not about my ability to hunt, which I love to do. It's not about the ability for me to protect my family and property against criminals, which we have the right to do. But it's all about us protecting ourselves from a tyrannical government of the United States."

Then there's Pratt:

"I look around: it's so good to see all these terrorists out here," Pratt said. "Janet Napolitano, she figured, as governor of Arizona, that we didn't have a border problem, but she knows who the real enemy is. Ha, ha, ha, ha. And Bill Clinton's been runnin' cover for her, too. Watch out how you guys speak out there, you know, words can have consequences. Remember Oklahoma City? Yeah, I do. And I also remember the Waco barbecue that your attorney general gave us. Thanks a lot...We're in a war. The other side knows they're at war, because they started it. They're comin' for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They're comin' for everything because they're a bunch of socialists."

Think words such as those don't matter? Late last week, a package addressed to Napolitano burst into flames at a U.S. Postal Service facility, as did packages addressed to several other public officials.

"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.