Monday, 10 January 2011

America unhinged

Perhaps the only thing more depressing than this weekend's assassination shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was the fact that it was so utterly unsurprising. The shooting, which for the moment remains an attempted assassination as its intended target fights for her life in hospital, so far has a death toll of six out of 20 people shot. For many observers in the US, the shooting is the culmination of two years of incendiary rhetoric from the right, an episode of far-right violence that people have been warning was coming soon. When you have mainstream American politicians telling people that the government is trying to establish "death panels" in its healthcare legislation and that there has been a "Socialist takeover" of the government that can only be brought to an end using "second amendment remedies", it was only a matter of time before some unhinged person on the far right acted out in violence.

The motives of the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, are not yet clear. In fact authorities are looking into the possibility of a second shooter. It is not yet known whether Loughner had any specific ties to the Tea Party movement, whether he was an admirer of Sarah Palin, or whether he was a fan of incendiary Fox News hosts such as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. But from his online postings and notes, it already seems clear that Loughner subscribed to far right ideology. His online postings and YouTube videos rant against government tyranny, using language that is eerily reminiscent of the language the mainstream right has been increasingly using. In one of his postings, Loughner refers disparagingly to 'currency that's not backed by gold or silver' - an idea that is the subject of regular rants on Mr. Beck's show (right before his commercials for gold investment). This idea that a non-gold-backed currency is unconstitutional was also a main focus of the anti-government 'patriot movement' of the 1990's that was responsible for violence in the middle part of that decade. Loughner also went on long rants about immigration, particularly Hispanic immigrants in Arizona.

Only time will tell whether Loughner targeted Giffords because she was the closest representative of the government he could find or specifically because she was a Democratic politician who had voted for the Heathcare legislation and the financial reform package - two pieces of legislation that have been denounced by the mainstream right as unconstitutional tyranny. But given the climate of vitriol that has existed in American politics over the past two years it's hard to see how the shooting can not have been affected by the extreme words of America's mainstream right. Giffords had already been specifically targeted by the Tea Party for her vote on healthcare - Sarah Palin even put out a 'hit list' with rifle crosshairs over her and other Democratic policians who had voted yes (pictured above). When asked whether Congresswoman Giffords had any enemies yesterday her father responded, "Yes, the entire Tea Party." Right after the healthcare vote Gifford's office was vandalized. Here is a clip of her discussing that incident back in March of last year. It is an eery precursor of things to come, especially when the reporter asks her if she is fearful of her own safety.

During her reelection campaign in November, Congresswoman Giffords narrowly defeated a Tea Party challenger who said Giffords had voted for an unconstitutional government takeover of healthcare and was endangering the future of America. He was able to mix violent imagery with his denunciations of Giffords' supposed attempts to destroy America when he held a target-shooting fundraising event in which Arizonans could 'target' the congresswoman.

Those on the mainstream right have been quick to distance themselves from Loughner, who they are at pains to point out appears to be a "troubled loner". And they have called the talk linking their incendiary language to Saturday's shooting "disgusting" and "political". But whether or not Loughner was specifically a subscriber to the Tea Party or a fan of politicians like Sarah Palin or talk show hosts like Glenn Beck is immaterial. It is always the fringe elements of a mainstream political ideology that will carry out violence. When mainstream politicians tell people that their government is out to get them, that message gets passed on and amplified to the crazies. 

Just look at the words - and lies - mainstream Republican politicians have used to describe the healthcare bill. Senator Jon Kyl called it "a stunning threat to liberty." Senator Chuck Grassley said that it would "determine if you're going to pull the plug on grandma." Speaker John Boehner called it, "a monstrosity." Sarah Palin told her followers that it will establish "death panels". Sharon Angle said that Democratic lawmakers had gotten so out of control that if they couldn't be defeated at the ballot box people may use "second amendment remedies" (ie guns). Republican Congressman Joe Wilson screamed "you lie!" at President Obama during the 2009 State of the Union speech as the president talked about the benefits of the healthcare law. Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann told her supporters that they should be "armed and dangerous" in opposing Obama. You even have the one-time chief of staff of an incoming Tea Party congressman (Joyce Kaufman, who is also a Conservative radio host) openly threatening to form a militia if Tea Party candidates didn't win last November (see video below).

If unhinged people hear these words, telling them that their liberty and perhaps their very survival is under threat from Democratic politicians, is it any wonder that some of them are going to try to defend their liberty in violent ways? As Ezra Klein noted in an eerily prophetic column last week, "[The Republican Party] has been engaged in a concerted campaign to scare the population into opposing health-care reform. That may be good politics, but it can have bad consequences." Those bad consequences may have been witnessed just days later in Arizona.

Over the past year people have been trying to sound the alarm over the potential for this kind of far-right violence egged on by the incendiary language of the mainstream right. In April of last year the Department of Homeland Security issued an internal report warning that right-wing extremism is on the rise and there was a growing potential for violence. That same month former president Bill Clinton warned of this kind of scenario when he spoke at the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, saying that the it may seem harmless when the right uses this violent rhetoric, but those words can have horrible consequences when the fall on unhinged ears.
What we learned from Oklahoma City is, not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold, but that the words we use really do matter because there are--there's this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.
The media's false equivalency

The mainstream American media was on Sunday full of questions about whether the shooting is a reflection of the extreme vitriol involved in today's politics. But in discussing the idea they, as usual, have been quick to add the "on both sides" caveat - saying that both Democratic and Republican politicians are using violent rhetoric. But where is the violent rhetoric on the Democratic side? The American media never points to any actual examples. The only example they ever use is that of former Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, who became notorious during his brief stint in congress for being the only Democrat trying to use the same aggressive tactics as Republicans (it ended in failure, he was overwhelmingly voted out of office in November).

In an effort to appear non-partisan the American media seems to be living in a fantasy land where the American left is engaging in the same violent imagery and scare tactics as the American right, where one incendiary comment by a Florida Democratic congressman is equivalent to hundreds of comments by Republican politicians. But that just isn't the case. The real threat of violence is coming from an agitated extreme right, being stoked by a mainstream center-right that sees political opportunity in exploiting people's fears. You don't see Republican politicians who voted against healthcare getting death threat calls to their offices. This is not a problem that exists, as the media likes to insist, "on both sides".

The Republicans have postponed their planned vote this week to overturn the healthcare legislation (a largely symbolic gesture since such a vote will not pass the Senate, which is still Democratically controlled). The postponement is perhaps an acknowledgment of how the healthcare debate may be contributing to the dangerously feral atmosphere of American politics right now. But it remains unseen whether Saturday's shooting will make politicians like Sarah Palin and media personalities like Glenn Beck tone down their rhetoric. It would certainly be the responsible thing to do, but these characters are not exactly known for their restraint.

Even if they do tone it down, perhaps it's too late. The genie has been let out of the bottle. A large group of angry, unemployed and armed Americans now believe that their government and Democratic politicians are trying to remake America into a Socialist dictatorship. And Democratic politicians are now going to have to take along armed guards any time they want to meet with their constituents. America is certainly a scary place these days.

1 comment:

Leigh said...

Totally agree re 'both sides' bollox. Jon Stewart can get caught up in that false equivalency too. The rally to restore sanity showcased the line about rhetoric from both the extreme right and extreme left. But uh, where exactly is this far left? No really, where?