The tragic shooting in Tucson this past weekend claimed the lives of six, including Federal Judge John Roll, and left congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords—-the evident target of alleged gunman Jared L. Loughner—-in critical condition following a gunshot through her brain. In all, twenty people were shot. The writings of Loughner, who was arrested at the scene, echo right-wing Patriot and anti-Federal Reserve themes mixed with rhetoric similar to that from people who are mentally unbalanced. While it remains unclear the extent to which the assassination attempt on Rep. Giffords was that of a committed right-wing ideologue, there’s ample evidence that aggressive right-wing rhetoric targeting liberals and leftists as traitors to the nation encourages some unstable people to act out in aggression or violence.
Right-wing demagogues may not be legally culpable for this most recent violence, but they must share some moral culpability for fostering a toxic political climate in which such acts are more likely to occur.
In March 2010, Tea Party icon and presumptive 2012 Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin released a “target list” of Democrats to beat in the November election featuring a map in which twenty House districts were marked with rifle scope crosshairs. She later told her supporters over Twitter, “Don’t Retreat, Instead-Reload!”
In June, Giffords’ Republican opponent, Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly held a campaign event at which supporters were invited to shoot an assault rifle with the candidate. The newspaper listing for the event read in part, “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office, Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”
In our 2009 report Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating, PRA senior analyst Chip Berlet explains how demonizing rhetoric can lead to violent acts:
“Right-wing pundits demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation. Some angry people in the audience already believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory and you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.”
“The current political environment is awash with seemingly absurd but nonetheless influential conspiracy theories, hyperbolic claims, and demonized targets,” explains Berlet, “and this creates a milieu where violence is a likely outcome.”
The Tucson attack evokes the 2009 murders of Kansas abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, and Holocaust Museum security guard, Stephen Johns, as well as a rash of other right-wing violence in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. We are reminded, too, of John Patrick Bedell’s 2010 attack on the entrance to the Pentagon, Andrew Joseph Stack’s suicidal flight into an Austin IRS office that killed Vernon Hunter, and Byron Williams’ shootout with California state police while allegedly on his way to kill people at the Tides Foundation and San Francisco ACLU.
During summer 2009, the demonizing language used at many congressional representatives’ local town hall meetings was complemented by a number of anti-Obama “patriots” who showed up outside (and even inside) those events with all manner of firearms. Those threatening displays fortunately did not devolve into shootings. At the time of the Tucson shooting spree, Rep. Giffords, a supporter of Obama’s health care reform plan, was holding her own outdoor “Congress on your corner” constituent event. The father of one of the dead, nine-year-old Christina Green, told the press that the “bookends of her life”—-she was born on 9/11/2001—-had been “tragic.”
May we all work to ensure that the Tucson shootings are the final bookend to the demagoguery, intimidation, and violence that has so tainted our political life since Obama’s election.
For more about right-wing rhetoric and conspiracy theories targeting liberals, leftists, President Obama, and Democrats:
- Toxic to Democracy, a special report by senior analyst Chip Berlet
- Chip Berlet on “The Becking of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords”, Democracy Now!
- Alleged Giffords Shooter Shares Currency Plot Obsession with Anti-Abortion Killer
- Possible Racist and Anti-Immigrant Tie to Alleged Arizona Assassin
- Extremism, Conspiracy Theory, and Murder, NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross