After this horrible news from Tucson….
… let me amplify something I said half-coherently in a live conversation with Guy Raz on All Things Considered a little while ago. My intended point was:
Shootings of political figures are by definition “political.” That’s how the target came to public notice; it is why we say “assassination” rather than plain murder.
But it is striking how rarely the “politics” of an assassination (or attempt) match up cleanly with the main issues for which a public figure has stood. Some killings reflect “pure” politics: John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln, the German officers who tried to kill Hitler and derail his war plans. We don’t know exactly why James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but it must have had a lot to do with civil rights.
There is a longer list of odder or murkier motives:
– Leo Ryan, the first (and, we hope, still the only) Representative to be killed in the line of duty, was gunned down in Guyana in 1978 for an investigation of the Jim Jones/Jonestown cult, not any “normal” political issue.
– Sirhan Sirhan horribly transformed American politics by killing Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but Sirhan’s political causes had little or nothing to do with what RFK stood for to most Americans.
– So too with Arthur Bremer, who tried to kill George C. Wallace in 1972 and left him paralyzed.
– The only known reason for John Hinckley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan involves Jodie Foster.
– It’s not often remembered now, but Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to shoot Gerald Ford, again for reasons that would mean nothing to most Americans of that time.
– When Harry Truman was shot at (and a policeman was killed) on the sidewalk outside the White Blair House, the attackers were concerned not about Cold War policies or Truman’s strategy in Korea but about Puerto Rican independence.
– The assassinations of William McKinley and James Garfield were also “political” but not in a way that matched the main politics of that time. The list could go on.
So the train of logic is:
1) anything that can be called an “assassination” is inherently political;
2) very often the “politics” are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than “normal” political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow “responsible” for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)
That’s the further political ramification here. We don’t know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we’ll never “understand.” But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac’s famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed — including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk — on rallies, on cable TV, in ads — about “eliminating” opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say “don’t retreat, reload.”
Jack Shafer at Slate:
The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the killing of six innocents outside a Tucson Safeway has bolstered the ongoing argument that when speaking of things political, we should all avoid using inflammatory rhetoric and violent imagery.
“Shooting Throws Spotlight on State of U.S. Political Rhetoric,” reports CNN. “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics,” states the New York Times. Keith Olbermann clocked overtime on Saturday to deliver a commentary subtitled “The political rhetoric of the country must be changed to prevent acts of domestic terrorism.” The home page of the Washington Post offered this headline to its story about the shooting: “Rampage Casts Grim Light on U.S. Political Discord.”
The lead spokesman for the anti-inflammatory movement, however, was Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, whose jurisdiction includes Tucson. Said Dupnik at a Jan. 8 press conference in answer to questions about the criminal investigation:
I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—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. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.
Embedded in Sheriff Dupnik’s ad hoc wisdom were several assumptions. First, that strident, anti-government political views can be easily categorized as vitriolic, bigoted, and prejudicial. Second, that those voicing strident political views are guilty of issuing Manchurian Candidate-style instructions to commit murder and mayhem to the “unbalanced.” Third, that the Tucson shooter was inspired to kill by political debate or by Sarah Palin’s “target” map or other inflammatory outbursts. Fourth, that we should calibrate our political speech in such a manner that we do not awaken the Manchurian candidates among us.
And, fifth, that it’s a cop’s role to set the proper dimensions of our political debate. Hey, Dupnik, if you’ve got spare time on your hands, go write somebody a ticket.
Sheriff Dupnik’s political sermon came before any conclusive or even circumstantial proof had been offered that the shooter had been incited by anything except the gas music from Jupiter playing inside his head.
For as long as I’ve been alive, crosshairs and bull’s-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such “inflammatory” words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I’ve listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I’ve even gotten angry, for goodness’ sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.
From what I can tell, I’m not an outlier. Only the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts. Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.
So apparently a pretty stupid Sarah Palin poster from last year in which gunsights were slapped over 20 districts carried by John McCain from which the Democratic incumbent had voted for Obamacare, is now to be considered the inspiration for this atrocity. Mrs Palin has some influence, but let’s not get carried away. For what it’s worth – and readers know that I’m hardly her greatest fan – I do not think she is very much more responsible for this abomination than Jodie Foster was for John Hinckley’s attempt to murder Ronald Reagan. In any case, Palin’s poster was only a souped-up version of a campaign trope that both parties have been happy to employ in the past. (That said, Palin Presidential Futures, already worth shorting, took another dive yesterday.)
But the sordid temptations of politics are such that people who argue there’s little sensible connection between Hollywood “violence” and real-world violence now suddenly insist that it just takes a silly poster and plenty of over-heated rhetoric to inspire America’s Top Kooks to come out of the closet, all guns blazing. And of course the reverse is also true: people happy to blame Grand Theft Auto for just about anything now insist there’s no connection at all between the tone of political discourse (“Second Amendment Solutions!”) and some nut taking these notions just a little bit too seriously.
Clearly, things are a little more complicated than that. While you cannot legislate for lunatics there’s also little need to give them any encouragement. But the more we learn about Jared Loughner the more it seems probable – at this stage – that he’s the kind of mentally unstable person who neither needed nor took any inspiration from Palin or the Tea Party or anything other than powerful fantasies that were his own creation.
And this too is normal. Political violence of this type is almost definitionally unhinged but it’s striking how rare it turns out to be the case that the perpetrators can be fitted into one neat political profile or another. And even when they can their targets are frequently so at odds with the meaning of their supposed “philosophy” that trying to “make sense” of such matters becomes an even more frustrating task.
Anyway, we may think these are unusually turbulent times, fanned by unusual quantities of cheap and phoney populism, scaremongering and hysteria but this is not in fact the case. ‘Twas ever thus and the 1960s offer a perspective that might be worth looking at if only, despite all the huffing and puffing, to appreciate how calm and at peace America is these days. Remember McKinley and Garfield too, if you want to go still further back. America ain’t tearing itself apart these days, no matter how much Paul Krugman tries to persuade you it must be. The paranoid style has rarely lacked followers and, just as significantly, the centre has also always had a healthy paranoia of its own. Sometimes, as is the case today or in the aftermath of any other act of grim violence, this will seem unusually plausible.
Most of the time, however, the scare stories about a new era of Militiamen or whatever are seriously over-cooked. The temper of these American times – despite what you will read everywhere today and tomorrow – is not unusually rebarbative or even uncommonly obtuse. (What might be said, mind you, is that the level of rhetoric is out of proportion to the stakes involved in the political game these days.)
The fact of the matter is that a country of 300 million people cannot help but be generously larded with oddballs, freaks, paranoids and assorted other nutters. Couple that with the American genius for self-realization and you soon begin to wonder why there isn’t more politically-themed violence than is actually the case
We’re going to hear a lot of talk in the coming days about putting an end to anti-government rhetoric. I’ve been listening to it all morning on the Sunday talk shows. Let’s get the obvious out of the way, here: Initiating violence against government officials and politicians is wrongheaded, immoral, futile, and counterproductive to any anti-government cause. As is encouraging or praising others who do. I ban anyone who engages in that kind of talk here.
But it’s worth remembering that the government initiates violence against its own citizens every day in this country, citizens who pose no threat or harm to anyone else. The particular policy that leads to the sort of violence you see in these videos is supported by nearly all of the politicians and pundits decrying anti-government rhetoric on the news channels this morning. (It’s also supported by Sarah Palin, many Tea Party leaders, and other figures on the right that politicians and pundits are shaming this weekend.)
I hope Rep. Giffords—and everyone wounded yesterday—makes a full recovery. It’s particularly tragic that she was shot while doing exactly what we want elected officials to do—she was making herself available to the people she serves. And of course we should mourn the people senselessly murdered yesterday, government employees and otherwise: U.S. District Judge John Roll, Dorothy Murray, Dorwin Stoddard, nine-year-old Christina Green, Phyllis Scheck, and Gabe Zimmerman.
That said, I long for the day that our political and media figures get as indignant about innocent Americans killed by their own government—killed in fact, as a direct and foreseeable consequence of official government policy that nearly all of those leaders support—as they are about a government official who was targeted by a clearly sick and deranged young man. What happened this weekend is not, by any means, a reason to shunt anti-government protest, even angry anti-government protest, out of the sphere of acceptable debate. The government still engages in plenty of acts and policies—including one-sided violence against its own citizens—that are well worth our anger, protest, and condemnation.
Jonathan Martin in Politico
Keach Hagey in Politico
Nick Gillespie at Reason:
There’s no question that the GOP and its proponents are more than ready to play a similar game. Any moral lapse by a Democrat, for instance, is an ethical rot that stems directly from the malefactor’s stance on the minimum wage or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, say, while hypocrites such as Sen. Larry Craig and Tom DeLay are ethical one-offs. The most-unbelievable response in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was longterm GOP activist Jerry Falwell’s announcement on Pat Robertson’s TV network that gays and women wearing pants etc. were responsible for radical Islamists killing 3,000 people (even more sadly, years after Falwell apologized for his self-evidently retarded statement, conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza blew out the thesis into a full-length book). I’m not trying to be “fair and balanced” here by bringing up GOP stupidity; I’m trying to point out that we’re in a decade of this sort craptastic instantaneous spin that latches on to everything in its path. I say this as someone who was fingered as broadly responsible for the culture that produced “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.
Readers of this site know I’m no Sarah Palin fan, but to accuse her of complicity in the murderous spree of a clearly insane person is one of the main reasons that partisan political parties are losing market share. I had myself tweeted that blaming Palin for Jared Loughner’s mass killing would be like blaming J.D. Salinger for Mark David Chapman shooting John Lennon (and as Jesse Walker pointed out, in Chapman’s case, at least we could be sure Chapman had read Salinger). Given Loughner’s fixation on grammar and the supposed lack of literacy evinced by most Americans, maybe William Safire and S.I. Hayakawa should be held responsible.
Like Matt Welch and Jack Shafer, I don’t think that today’s political rhetoric is particularly overheated or vitriolic and, even if it were, I don’t think that would be a problem. I suspect that most people are like me in that they respond to folks who actually believe something and are willing to fight for it when it comes to a particular political issue. I don’t like bipartisanship, which usually means that all of us get screwed, but it’s easy enough to respect someone you virulently disagree with if you think they are arguing in good faith.
The problem isn’t with the current moment’s rhetoric, it’s with the goddamn politicization of every goddamn thing not even for a higher purpose or broader fight but for the cheapest moment-by-moment partisan advantage. Whether on the left or on the right, there’s a totalist mentality that everything can and should be explained first and foremost as to whether it helps or hurt the party of choice.
That sort of clearly calculated punditry helps explain one of last week’s other big stories, which is how both the Dems and the GOP have really bad brand loyalty these days. In its most recent survey of political self-identification, Gallup found that the Dems were at their lowest point in 22 years and that the GOP remains stuck below the one-third mark. The affiliation that has the highest marks for the past couple of decades on average and is growing now is independent. Faced with the way that the major parties and their partisans try to bend every news story, trend, box office hit or bomb, you name it, whether truly horrific (as Saturday’s shooting was) or totally banal, is it any wonder that fewer people want to be affiliated with the Dems and Reps? This is a long-term trend. Indeed, Harris Poll numbers that stretch back to the late ’60s show the same trend: Fewer and few folks want to view themselves as Democrats and the GOP has never been popular (even though far more people consider themselves “conservative” than “liberal”). And note what Gallup are Harris are talking about there is not party registration. It’s identification and self-affiliation; how you see yourself. It’s a cultural identity.
Paul Krugman at The New York Times
Ross Douthat at The New York Times
Tom Maguire on Krugman
Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:
At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday—about eight hours before he allegedly killed six people and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), in Tucson—Jared Lee Loughner phoned an old and close friend with whom he had gone to high school and college. The friend, Bryce Tierney, was up late watching TV, but he didn’t answer the call. When he later checked his voice mail, he heard a simple message from Loughner: “Hey man, it’s Jared. Me and you had good times. Peace out. Later.”
That was it. But later in the day, when Tierney first heard about the Tucson massacre, he had a sickening feeling: “They hadn’t released the name, but I said, ‘Holy shit, I think it’s Jared that did it.'” Tierney tells Mother Jones in an exclusive interview that Loughner held a years-long grudge against Giffords and had repeatedly derided her as a “fake.” Loughner’s animus toward Giffords intensified after he attended one of her campaign events and she did not, in his view, sufficiently answer a question he had posed, Tierney says. He also describes Loughner as being obsessed with “lucid dreaming”—that is, the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control—and says Loughner became “more interested in this world than our reality.” Tierney adds, “I saw his dream journal once. That’s the golden piece of evidence. You want to know what goes on in Jared Loughner’s mind, there’s a dream journal that will tell you everything.”
Peter Beinart at Daily Beast:
Liberals should stop acting like the Tea Party is guilty of inciting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting until proven innocent. That’s unfair. If someone finds evidence that violent anti-government, or anti-democratic, rhetoric helped trigger Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree, then the people making those statements should pay with their political careers. But so far, at least, there is no such evidence. Of course, Sarah Palin should stop using hunting metaphors to discuss her political opponents. She should stop doing that, and a dozen other idiotic things. But just as Tea Partiers are wrong to promiscuously throw around terms like “communist” and “death panels,” liberals should avoid promiscuously accusing people of being accessories to attempted murder. That’s too serious a charge to throw around unless you have the goods. I want Barack Obama to derail the congressional Republicans as much as anyone. But not this way.
The Giffords shooting doesn’t prove that Sarah Palin has blood on her hands. What it does prove is that when it comes to terrorism, people like Sarah Palin have a serious blind spot. On the political right, and at times even the political center, there is a casual assumption—so taken for granted that it is rarely even spoken—that the only terrorist threat America faces is from jihadist Islam. There was a lot of talk a couple of weeks back, you’ll remember, about a terrorist attack during the holiday season. And there’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about the threat of homegrown terrorists. Well, we’ve just experienced a terrorist attack over the holiday season, and it was indeed homegrown. Had the shooters’ name been Abdul Mohammed, you’d be hearing the familiar drumbeat about the need for profiling and the pathologies of Islam. But since his name was Jared Lee Loughner, he gets called “mentally unstable”; the word “terrorist” rarely comes up. When are we going to acknowledge that good old-fashioned white Americans are every bit as capable of killing civilians for a political cause as people with brown skin who pray to Allah? There’s a tradition here. Historically, American elites, especially conservative American elites, have tended to reserve the term “terrorism” for political violence committed by foreigners. In the early 20th century, for instance, there was enormous fear, even hysteria, about the terrorist threat from anarchist and communist immigrants from Eastern or Southern Europe, people like Sacco and Vanzetti. In the aftermath of World War I, large numbers of immigrant radicals were arrested and deported. Nothing similar happened to members of the white, protestant Ku Klux Klan, even though its violence was more widespread.
Similarly today, the media spends the Christmas season worrying how another attack by radical Muslims might undermine President Obama’s national-security credentials. But when Jared Lee Loughner shoots 20 people at a Safeway, barely anyone even comments on what it says about the president’s anti-terror bona fides. And yet Loughner’s attack is, to a significant degree, what American terror looks like. Obviously, jihadists have committed their share of terrorism on American soil in the last couple of decades—from the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 to the 9/11 attacks to Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan’s murder of 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. But there have been at least as many attacks by white Americans angry at their own government or society. For almost two decades, culminating in 1995, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski sent mail bombs to people he considered complicit in industrial America’s assault on nature. (A surprising amount of recent American terrorism comes from militant environmentalists.) That same year, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the second-largest recent terrorist attack on U.S. soil after 9/11. In 1996, Eric Rudolph bombed the Atlanta Olympics to protest abortion and international socialism. According to the FBI, opposition to abortion also played a role in the 2001 anthrax attacks (you know, the ones Dick Cheney were sure had been masterminded by Saddam Hussein). In 2009, Wichita, Kansas, abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered. (He had already been shot once, and his clinic had been bombed.) That same year octogenarian neo-Nazi James Wenneker von Brunn shot a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Last February, a man angry at the federal government flew a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas.
Instapundit at The Wall Street Journal
None of this, of course, will ease the suffering of Giffords or her family, nor of any of the other individuals and families directly affected by this morning’s slaughter. For them, the process of grieving and recovering has barely begun. Loughner’s shooting might’ve been motivated by mental illness, but the people in that parking lot were motivated by democracy: It was a meeting between a congressional representative and those she represents. They were attacked for being good citizens, and nothing can ever put that right.
But one way that people might pay tribute is to follow their example and attend the next meeting held by their representative. It is so easy and safe to participate in the American political system that we sometimes take doing so for granted. Today was a horrifying look into a world in which that isn’t so, and it should leave us with renewed appreciation for, and determination to protect, the world we have. On this, Giffords was way ahead of us: When the 112th session of the House of Representatives convened to read the Constitution earlier this week, she chose to read the section guaranteeing Americans the right “peaceably to assemble.”