Very few Americans are fans of both The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kamp, as the Tucson killer, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, apparently was. Fewer still post on the Internet fears about “brain washing,” “mind control,” and “conscience dreaming”; have a long record of public disruption and aberrant behavior; were expelled from community college; or were summarily rejected for military service.
No matter. Almost immediately following Loughner’s cowardly murdering of six and wounding of 14 including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, pundits and some public figures rushed to locate his rampage, together with his paranoid rantings about government control, within the larger landscape of right-wing politics — especially the rhetoric of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin.
Apparently, we are supposed to believe that Loughner’s unhinged rants about the “government” indict those who express reasonable reservations about the size of government as veritable accessories to mass murder. The three worst offenders were Paul Daly of the New York Daily News, who claimed just that in an essay with the raging headline “The blood of Congresswoman Giffords was on Sarah Palin’s hands”; the ubiquitous Paul Krugman, who connected Loughner to the supposedly Republican-created “climate of hate”; and Andrew Sullivan, who thought he saw yet another avenue through which to further his own blind antipathy toward Sarah Palin and “the Palin forces.” In their warped syllogism, the Tea Party unquestionably creates hatred; a congresswomen was shot out of hatred; ergo, the Tea Party and/or the Republican party all but pulled the trigger.
That the 22-year-old shooter more likely fit the profile of an unhinged killer like Ted Kaczynski or John Hinckley did not seem to register. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, commentators pontificated about a right-wing “climate of hate” in Dallas, Texas, that supposedly explained why a crazed avowed Communist — pro-Soviet, Castroite 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald — shot President Kennedy. Suddenly, this week, we are back in a 1963 mood of blaming politics for deranged shootings.
In the times of national uncertainty and fear that immediately follow hideous mass shootings, this cheap habit of channeling insanity into politics always surfaces but never convinces — as we learned from the deplorable tactic of blaming the Oklahoma City bombing on conservative talk radio. There is usually no clear-cut evidence that a shooter’s ideology has trumped his own imbalances; and we are never quite sure what outside stimulus is the deciding factor that pushes the unhinged over the edge from sounding like a nut on MySpace or YouTube into pulling the trigger.
Loughner was no John Wilkes Booth or James Earl Ray, whose bouts of insanity and past troubles seemed overshadowed by a virulent hatred of the men they shot, which in turn was driven largely by racism or sectarian hatred. But even in such seemingly clear-cut examples of political assassination as Booth’s small cabal, we do not quite see a Day of the Jackal–like cold professionalism, funded by nefarious and well-organized political organizations. Plenty of southerners wanted Lincoln dead by spring 1864; scores of racists shared the sentiments of Ray toward Martin Luther King. But while both killers carefully planned their shootings, it is far harder to uncover elaborate conspiracies that used Booth and Ray as mere triggermen than to discover that both were troubled, sick, and often violent characters whose demonic furies turned their own political extremism into carefully calculated murders.
Further, there is no evidence that political killers share a common ideology. For every apparently right-wing Timothy McVeigh there is a left-wing Ted Kaczynski; both exhibited a sort of mental derangement in their braggadocio about extreme politics. The Sixties culture of drugs, permissiveness, national liberation, radical politics, and environmentalism no more made the Palestinian extremist Sirhan Sihran assassinate Bobby Kennedy, or Charles Manson follower Squeaky Fromme try to kill President Ford, or pop socialist and cult preacher the Rev. Jim Jones order the execution of Rep. Leo Ryan, or Arthur Bremmer shoot the “segregationist dinosaur” George Wallace, than right-wing politics drove on the equally deranged Jared Lee Loughner.
There is much talk that Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” ad pushed Loughner over the edge. But if sloppy use of gun metaphors can drive anyone to shoot congressional representatives, think what we are up against when the president of the United States invokes violent imagery to galvanize his supporters. What are we to make of Obama’s warning of “hand-to-hand combat” if the Republicans take over; or his comment that one of his supporters could “tear [Sean Hannity] up”; or his Untouchables boast that “if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”; or his advice to supporters of his presidential campaign to argue with Republicans and independents and “get in their face”?
Why would a president boast about figuring out “whose ass to kick,” or, in a climate of fear about terrorism, call his opponents “hostage takers”? In a post-9/11 world, is it prudent for the commander-in-chief to say of his political opponents, “Here’s the problem: It’s almost like they’ve got — they’ve got a bomb strapped to them and they’ve got their hand on the trigger. You don’t want them to blow up”? What about, “But you’ve got to kind of talk them, ease that finger off the trigger”?
Also, in a political twofer, Obama once not only evoked gun imagery, but did so in a context of relegating Republicans into second-class citizenry: “We can’t have special interests sitting shotgun. We gotta have middle class families up in front. We don’t mind the Republicans joining us. They can come for the ride, but they gotta sit in back.”
Yet do we really wish to tie crude presidential metaphors, similes, and bombast to the next violent attack on a conservative political figure? Are we to suggest that President Obama’s occasional indiscretions have created a climate of fear that someday will lead to violence against his political adversaries? Or, did Obama merely from time to time indulge in sloppy thinking and clumsy expression? Even as someone who did not vote for Barack Obama, I do not think the president’s ill-advised and juvenile similes and allusions will ever drive a liberal extremist into “bringing a gun” to a political fight or literally “tearing up” a political opponent.
The problem that political hatchet writers such as Paul Krugman have with channeling acts of unhinged violence into expressions of mainstream political thinking is threefold. First, such politicos cannot calibrate the degree to which ideological motivation trumps mental instability. If Arthur Bremmer hated racists and admired black politicians, did such feelings feed on mainstream liberals’ fears of segregationists, and did they alone result in his shooting of George Wallace? Analyzing an isolated act of violence is more difficult than finding a pattern in the 30-something terrorist plots since 9/11 in which avowed Islamic terrorists have tried to kill infidel Americans in open emulation of Osama bin Laden.
Second, there is no consistent evidence that the Kaczynskis or Squeaky Frommes of the world are less numerous than the McVeighs. If political fervor inspires extremism, is there any evidence that states’-rights zealotry prompts more terrorism than, say, radical environmentalism? Are left-wing nuts more or less numerous than right-wing nuts — and more or less likely to translate warped politics into pulling a trigger? If Sarah Palin has used crosshairs imagery, has the Democratic-party hierarchy never used shooting-range targets to illustrate their electoral strategy to unseat Republicans? And has any academic collated 100 years of political assassinations and shootings in the U.S. to determine whether radicals or reactionaries are more likely to shoot public figures — and, far more critically, to prove that such political motivations, rather than mental instability, were the real catalysts for the ensuing violence?
Third, the outrage of Daly, Krugman, Sullivan, and others is partisan and transparently self-serving. Paul Krugman would have more credibility on the topic of extreme rhetoric had he written a column a few years ago warning Americans that it was one thing to oppose George W. Bush, but quite another to publish a novel envisioning the assassination of the president, or to award first prize at the Toronto Film Festival to a “docudrama” constructing the shooting of Bush, or to compare one’s opponents (as Al Gore and John Glenn did) to “brownshirts” and “Hitler.” Did we ever hear from Andrew Sullivan to cool the sick rhetoric about Sarah Palin, in worries that his incessant rumor-mongering about her supposed faked pregnancies had reached the point of dehumanization?
If crazed gunmen are sadly a periodic characteristic of American culture, so are political vultures who scavenge political capital as they pick through the horrific violence.