When Jared Loughner shot and very nearly killed Arizona Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the U.S. media had an overwhelming, immediate response: fiery right-wing anti-government rhetoric has finally prompted a political murder. Paul Krugman stated it most succinctly in the New York Times, two days after the shooting:
When you heard the terrible news from Arizona, were you completely surprised? Or were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?
Kansans have a recent, painful memory to harken back to: the May 31, 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller, also by a lone man, but one with a more coherent political agenda. Shooter Scott Roeder testified in court as to why he did it, never once invoking the importance of proper grammar or a desire to return America to the gold standard.
At that time, many accused the Pro-Life movement of inciting Roeder’s crime through their violent, apocalyptic rhetoric. Operation Rescue proudly describes abortion as a a “holocaust” and its allies called Tiller a mass murderer or “Tiller the baby killer.” As Thomas Frank pointed out at the time, did Roeder not get the memo that he wasn’t supposed to take any of this rhetoric seriously?
Predictably, almost no one rushed to support Roeder’s actions. Operation Rescue President Troy Newman claimed not to know Roeder, and joined with Pro-Lifers across Kansas to condemned Tiller’s murder.
It’s been a while since anyone shot a politician in America, and for many Loughner fits the profile of someone who would do it: he’s a jobless, dispirited, impressionable white man in a part of the country rife with conservative rage and easily available weapons.
So are politicians and talkers on the right — Palin, with her infamous map putting Gifford’s district in crosshairs, Sharron Angle, who suggested “Second Amendment remedies” to a liberal Congress, and Michele Bachman, who called for violent revolt against Obama’s government – partly to blame for what happened last weekend in Tuscon?
Jonathan Chait in the New Republic says “no”:
I don’t believe that analogizing politics to combat encourages anybody, even the mentally ill, to take up violence. People use metaphors like this in all aspects of daily life—sports, business, dating, and on and on.
The second form is to lump together all sorts of extremism under the broad rubric of “anger” or “hate.” The New York Times news story posits “a wrenching process of soul-searching about the tone of political discourse and wondered aloud if a lack of civility had somehow contributed to the bloodshed in Tucson.” NBC’s Mark Murray writes, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.”
This category is far too broad. Strong feelings are a part of political discourse. This is serious business. Important things are at stake, including, at times, life and death. People have a right to get angry.
Well put. But, as Chait himself also states, political violence is in the air these days, not just in words. As Frank Rich notes in his column in today’s New York Times:
This isn’t about angry blog posts or verbal fisticuffs. Since Obama’s ascension, we’ve seen repeated incidents of political violence. Just a short list would include the 2009 killing of three Pittsburgh police officers by a neo-Nazi Obama-hater; last year’s murder-suicide kamikaze attack on an I.R.S. office in Austin, Tex.; and the California police shootout with an assailant plotting to attack an obscure liberal foundation obsessively vilified by Beck.
So we circle back to Krugman’s point: a black man sits in the White House, and Democrats have enacted a slew of comparatively liberal legislation. Conservatives are angry, and extremists on the right, who are numerous, armed, egged on by media outlets and, to an alarming degree, embraced by the Republican establishment, are acting out their rage.
Loughner is part of nobody’s army, but chances are his shots fired against liberals won’t be the last.