In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, many people expressed their revulsion at the violent rhetoric that’s become so much a part of contemporary conservatism, particularly in the US. Since then, however, the push back has begun.
Some commentators simply deny that the massacre possesses any political significance whatsoever. Look at his YouTube clips, they say. Jared Laughner, the alleged shooter, was nuts, a crazy person. That was all this was about: a disturbed man, living out a violent fantasy.
Now, at the most facile level, that’s obviously true. Most of us do not open fire on crowds. Normal people do not do go on killing sprees – by definition those who do so are not normal.
Mind you, you could make exactly the same point about almost any serious crime. Are all murderers abnormal? Well, in one sense, yes. But as an explanation, that tells us nothing. It’s an entirely circular argument.
The real question is why such crimes take the particular form that they do. As Mark Ames points out, gun massacres in the US are actually comparatively recent, dating, as a social phenomenon, from the mid-1980s. Obviously, there were disturbed people who did awful things in the US prior to then. The point is, though, that their acts took a different form, in a different social context. Ames thus argues that the rise of the workplace massacre (and the closely related school massacre) actually correlates with the massive social dislocations produced by economic reform in the US at that time.
Now, he might be right or wrong about that (his Going Postal is a very interesting book) but it’s a least a serious attempt at an analysis rather than a retreat to psychological banalities.
So let’s try something similar about Tucson. What was the context for this crime? In what particular social setting did it take place?
As soon as you ask that question, you have to acknowledge the cult of political violence associated with the contemporary populist right. In 2009, I wrote a piece for New Matilda that covered similar ground. Here’s a chunk of that argument:
In April this year, a man named Richard Poplawski ambushed and killed three Pittsburgh police officers. Poplawski was a paranoiac white supremacist. He feared a sinister cabal controlling the federal government, the media, and the banking system. These malevolent internationalists were, he thought, coming to take his guns. On the neo-Nazi site Stormfront, Poplawski illustrated his theories with Youtube clips of Glenn Beck discussing the supposed FEMA concentration camps with Congressman Ron Paul.
Naturally, in the wake of Pittsburgh, Beck professed outrage at any association with Poplawski. Why, the man was a Nazi, a nut, solely responsible for his own crimes. The vast majority of Beck’s fans were ordinary Americans, law-abiding folk as appalled at gun massacres as anyone.
Which was, no doubt, true. Yet, in his new book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalised the American Right, the journalist David Neiwert argues that Beck — and others like him — should not so easily escape responsibility for a violent fringe. For years, Neiwert has been monitoring the mainstreaming of the particularly dangerous kind of right-wing populism he calls “eliminationism”. An example: on a radio show syndicated to 160 stations, Beck once mused: “I’m thinking about killing [filmmaker] Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it.”
It is, Neiwert says, increasingly common to hear media figures with mass audiences discussing liberals as carcinogens on the body politic. In prominent blogger Michelle Malkin’s book Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild, liberals are insane; in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, they are fascists; in widely syndicated radio host Michael Savage’s The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military (and in scores of similar books) they are traitors, destroying the nation from within. The three titles above were all bestsellers.
Yes, the last decade saw an equal proliferation of Bush-bashing texts. For Neiwert, however, eliminationism fundamentally differs from the anti-Republican stylings of Moore or Al Franken because of its rhetorical violence. Once you diagnose liberalism as a cancer, its excision is already implied. There is, therefore, a certain inevitability to the tone of Savage’s radio show. “I say round them up and hang ’em high,” he tells his listeners.
The columnist Ann Coulter’s best-selling books include a text entitled Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. With treason traditionally attracting the death penalty, it’s no surprise when Coulter tells an interviewer that she prefers to communicate with progressives via “a baseball bat”. On another famous occasion, she said of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, “My only regret […] is he did not go to the [liberal] New York Times building,” a quip that she subsequently amplified and repeated.
That was more than a year ago. Since then, the rise of the Tea Party movement has led to massive rhetorical escalation. Consider the collection of images that TBOGG compiled from recent Tea Party events.
Yes, there’s over-heated rhetoric at left-wing rallies, too. But when the Tea Partiers talk about armed resistance, they’re doing so to a constituency in which guns have an almost talismanic significance. Hence the photos of protesters carrying machine guns.
(Just in passing, ask yourself what would happen if armed Muslim or black radicals massed in Washington. Would that be dismissed as harmless hijinks, do you think?)
Furthermore, while the Tea Party likes to describe itself as a grass roots phenomenon, it’s closely connected to a well-funded conservative infrastructure that includes FOX news, thousands of talk radio shows, think-tanks and publishing houses. Glen Beck might be a fringe thinker but he’s a fringe thinker who reaches millions of people. When he thus explains that the Federal Emergency Management Agency plan to establish concentration camps for dissidents or he enthuses about armed groups of conservative whites fighting against the government in a civil war, it’s a message that gets heard across the country.
And here’s a typical Beck broadcast, delivered against a backdrop of goose-stepping Nazis:
“It all adds up to me having to admit that I was wrong. Our government is not marching down the road towards communism or socialism. … They’re marching us to a non-violent fascism. Or to put it another way, they’re marching us to 1984. Big Brother, he’s watching … Like it or not, fascism is on the rise.”
Gabrielle Giffords was targeted by the Tea Party Right on the basis that she supported the Obama health care plan – a plan that Beck and others like him have regularly explained to millions of Americans as representing totalitarian communism. Indeed, Sarah Palin’s notorious gun site map was only part of the eliminationist rhetoric unleashed against Giffords. For instance, her local Republican opponents held a fundraising event for his campaign that included the following message: ‘Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.’
And Jesse Kelly, Republican candidate and Tea Bag favourite, the man with whom you could shoot a fully automatic M16 with? In his election push, how did he distinguish himself from moderate candidates? Why, by using a photo of him posed with a gun on his lap, boasting about his credentials as a combat veteran!
In that context, with the opposition to Giffords explicitly posing itself in military terms, is it really so surprising that she became the focus for a disturbed young man’s violent fantasies?
Indeed, as has been widely reported, Giffords herself was quite clear what the gun imagery represented and what it might mean. After her office was vandalised, she told the media: ‘Sarah Palin has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district and when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there are consequences to that action.’
One of the reasons why she could give that warning is that the pattern’s played out again and again and again, as various oddballs put into practice the theory they’ve heard from Beck and from others.
Here’s a timetable compiled by David Neiwert:
— July 2008: A gunman named Jim David Adkisson, agitated at how “liberals” are “destroying America,” walks into a Unitarian Church and opens fire, killing two churchgoers and wounding four others.
— October 2008: Two neo-Nazis are arrested in Tennessee in a plot to murder dozens of African-Americans, culminating in the assassination of President Obama.
— December 2008: A pair of “Patriot” movement radicals – the father-son team of Bruce and Joshua Turnidge, who wanted “to attack the political infrastructure” – threaten a bank in Woodburn, Oregon, with a bomb in the hopes of extorting money that would end their financial difficulties, for which they blamed the government. Instead, the bomb goes off and kills two police officers. The men eventually are convicted and sentenced to death for the crime.
— December 2008: In Belfast, Maine, police discover the makings of a nuclear “dirty bomb” in the basement of a white supremacist shot dead by his wife. The man, who was independently wealthy, reportedly was agitated about the election of President Obama and was crafting a plan to set off the bomb.
— January 2009: A white supremacist named Keith Luke embarks on a killing rampage in Brockton, Mass., raping and wounding a black woman and killing her sister, then killing a homeless man before being captured by police as he is en route to a Jewish community center.
— February 2009: A Marine named Kody Brittingham is arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate President Obama. Brittingham also collected white-supremacist material.
— April 2009: A white supremacist named Richard Poplawski opens fire on three Pittsburgh police officers who come to his house on a domestic-violence call and kills all three, because he believed President Obama intended to take away the guns of white citizens like himself. Poplawski is currently awaiting trial.
— April 2009: Another gunman in Okaloosa County, Florida, similarly fearful of Obama’s purported gun-grabbing plans, kills two deputies when they come to arrest him in a domestic-violence matter, then is killed himself in a shootout with police.
— May 2009: A “sovereign citizen” named Scott Roeder walks into a church in Topeka, Kansas, and assassinates abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.
— June 2009: A Holocaust denier and right-wing tax protester named James Von Brunn opens fire at the Holocaust Museum, killing a security guard.
— February 2010: An angry tax protester named Joseph Ray Stack flies an airplane into the building housing IRS offices in Austin, Texas. (Media are reluctant to label this one “domestic terrorism” too.)
— March 2010: An anti-government extremist named John Patrick Bedell walks into the Pentagon and opens fire, wounding two officers before he is himself shot dead.
— May 2010: A “sovereign citizen” from Georgia is arrested in Tennessee and charged with plotting the violent takeover of a local county courthouse.
— May 2010: A still-unidentified white man walks into a Jacksonville, Fla., mosque and sets it afire, simultaneously setting off a pipe bomb.
— May 2010: Two “sovereign citizens” named Jerry and Joe Kane gun down two police officers who pull them over for a traffic violation, and then wound two more officers in a shootout in which both of them are eventually killed.
— July 2010: An agitated right-winger and convict named Byron Williams loads up on weapons and drives to the Bay Area intent on attacking the offices of the Tides Foundation and the ACLU, but is intercepted by state patrolmen and engages them in a shootout and armed standoff in which two officers and Williams are wounded.
— September 2010: A Concord, N.C., man is arrested and charged with plotting to blow up a North Carolina abortion clinic. The man, 26-year-old Justin Carl Moose, referred to himself as the “Christian counterpart to (Osama) bin Laden” in a taped undercover meeting with a federal informant.
But that’s still only part of the context.
It’s both tempting and reassuring to focus exclusively on the Becks and the Coulters and the Teabaggers, precisely because they seem so extreme and so deranged.
But we also need to acknowledge the connection between the increasingly violent rhetoric in American politics and the state of permanent war that the US now maintains.
Since 2001, we’ve seen, in the context of the war on terror, a normalisation of violence that once would have been unthinkable. Take torture. In his recent memoir, George Bush openly acknowledges ordering Americans to employ water boarding on a captive. Water boarding is, of course, a torture technique developed by the Spanish Inquisition and then refined by the Imperial Japanese Army and Pol Pot.
Once upon a time, it would have been unimaginable that a US president would have so casually admit to complicity in torture. But, then, again, an enthusiasm for inflicting physical pain on detainees has, in the last few years, become a hallmark of conservative populism.
And this has an effect on the culture. Americans are, surveys show, among the people on earth most supportive of government’s torturing prisoners.
Put simply, you cannot fight prolonged colonial wars, with all that they represent (Guantanamo Bay, assassinations, mercenaries, etc) without degrading the culture and fostering an increased tolerance of the unthinkable. In a different context, the eliminationist rhetoric from Beck and others – the calls to take up arms, to water the tree of liberty with blood and so on and so forth – might seem as harmless as the ghoulish threats issued by a professional wrestler prior to a staged bout.
But the ongoing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan serves to normalise the use of deadly force. Eliminating one’s perceived enemies with an automatic weapon doesn’t seem like such a fantasy when, in Iraq and Afghanistan, you see Americans doing it every day.
That’s why it’s so wrong to see the Tucson massacre as an isolated incident, the result of an individual crazy flipping his wig. It’s a symptom of something much more than that, a society in a profound social crisis.