Why Right-Wing Fearmongers Have Blood on Their Hands
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For some time now, it's been something of a reflexive response by media pundits, particularly conservatives and "moderate" liberals, to point to mental illness when some violent and unstable person commits a horrifying act in the name of extremist right-wing beliefs. If they're just mentally ill, you can't blame the people whose ideas they happened to pick up, can you?
Thus we have witnessed a steady stream of "isolated incidents" in which angry, mentally unstable men walk into churches and shoot their liberal targets in the head, or walk into public spaces and open fire, or crash their planes into government offices and gun down police officers. Yet when all these, and a long list of similar incidents, occur, they are dismissed as "isolated incidents." Because, you see the perpetrators are just "nutcases."
Likewise, when an oddball college dropout named Jared Loughner walks up to Representative Gabrielle Giffords in a Safeway parking lot and shoots her point-blank, then empties another 30 rounds into the crowd around her, killing six and wounding 14 more — well, that can't be laid at the feet of his incoherent (but largely right-wing) belief system, can it? After all, he's obviously got mental problems, right? Therefore, it's just another isolated incident.
That's a cop-out, and a dangerous one. One of its chief consequences, in fact, is that the list of "isolated incidents" — and the body count that accompanies it — will just keep mounting. At some point, people will realize that the incidents are perhaps not so isolated after all.
This is particularly the case in a place like Arizona, where the political environment has become increasingly toxic in recent years. Conservative hatred of all things liberal has become so ingrained in the local discourse — thanks in large part to the pervasive popularity of right-wing hate talkers like Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, as well as the omnipresence of Fox News and its "opinion" pundits — that it is becoming increasingly difficult to self-identify as a Democrat or a liberal in much of the state. People are afraid — with good reason — that doing so will expose them to vicious verbal and perhaps physical attacks. (Will Bunch wrote about this phenomenon in some detail for Media Matters recently.)
People on the ground in Arizona, like Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, know this reality intimately — which is why he immediately spoke out after the Giffords shootings, denouncing the "climate of hate" that had come to dominate the political environment in his state, and pointing in particular to right-wing radio and TV pundits who whip up those animosities for ratings, profits, and sheer mean-spirited viciousness.
So the Right's response is what we have seen in previous "isolated incidents": Because Loughner is a "nutcase" with views from all over the conspiracy planet, the Right can't be blamed for his act.
To an extent, they are correct: They certainly can't be blamed in any direct sense, and especially not in a criminal sense. But neither are they without culpability — especially when the rhetoric upon which the mentally unstable person has acted violently is as deliberately inflammatory and as profoundly irresponsible as what we have seen from the American Right in recent years. The Right, indeed, bears the lion's share of the blame for creating a toxic environment in which unstable people come to believe that their political opponents are the embodiment of pure evil — that they are destroying America deliberately and maliciously — and therefore must be dealt with violently. This is an environment that today exists not just in Arizona, but everywhere in America.