The gunman arrested in connection with the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of at least five others was clearly delusional, but was he influenced by the toxic rhetoric coursing through the country today?
On Saturday morning, Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was holding a meet-and-greet at a Tucson Safeway when 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot her in the head, point blank. He then allegedly turned his fire on others; at least five people were killed, including federal judge John Roll. Roll had previously received death threats for his involvement in immigration cases, but he had been at the event unexpectedly; Giffords is thought to have been the main target. Miraculously, she survived, though as of this writing she remains in critical condition. We don’t yet know what her would-be assassin was thinking. But we do know that Giffords, the first Jewish woman that Arizona sent to Congress, has been the target of a long campaign of right-wing incitement. And Loughner, while clearly in the grip of delusion rather than any coherent ideology, nonetheless shared many far-right obsessions.
Loughner had a YouTube channel and a MySpace page, and both suggest someone deeply unbalanced. His videos, which mostly feature white text on a black background accompanied by trippy electronic music, are full of unintelligible messages about conscious dreaming and English grammar. But they also make it clear that Loughner has internalized some of the conspiracy theories common in the Tea Party. He is obsessed with currency manipulation and out-of-control government power. Toward the end of a YouTube video titled “My Final Thoughts,” he writes, “The majority of citizens in the United States of America have never read the United States of America’s Constitution. You don’t have to accept the federalist laws. Nonetheless, read the United States of America’s Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws.” Among his MySpace photos is an American history book with a gun on top.
Perhaps equally significant, he lists Mein Kampf among his favorite books—although he cites The Communist Manifesto as well. Giffords was vocal about her Judaism, which she embraced as an adult. (Her father, who is a first cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow’s father, is Jewish, while her mother is a Christian Scientist.) Given Loughner’s fixation on currency and his nod to Hitler, it certainly seems possible that Jew-hatred played a role in his terrible mixed-up fantasy world.
Loughner was probably too insane to have really participated in anti-Semitic politics, or, for that matter, in the Tea Party. But it is important to note that Giffords has been relentlessly demonized by the right, the rhetoric around her charged with violence. And such rhetoric is dangerous precisely because of the effect it can have on the unhinged. Loughner was crazy, but he was also responsive to certain real-world political currents, particularly the right’s nightmare vision of federal power run amok. One can’t completely separate this mad act from earlier threats against Giffords.
In August 2009, during another meet-and-greet at a Safeway, a conservative activist who confronted Giffords dropped a gun, leading worried aides to call the police. As right-wing fury mounted, there were other intimations of violence. In March 2010, hours after Giffords’ vote in favor of health care reform, her Tucson office was vandalized, a door and window either kicked in or shot out. Sarah Palin published a map featuring gun sights on the Congressional districts of 20 Democrats then tweeted it to her followers, saying, “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: Don’t Retreat, Instead—RELOAD.”
“Our office corner has really become an area where the Tea Party movement congregates,” Giffords told MSNBC after the attack on her office. “The rhetoric is incredibly heated. Not just the calls but the emails, the slurs, things have really gotten spun up.” Political leaders, she said, need to realize “that their rhetoric, and firing people up—for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, the way she has it depicted is the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district—when people do that, you’ve got to realize, there are consequences to that action.”
But the rhetoric didn’t cool down. This summer, Giffords’ Tea Party-backed opponent, Jesse Kelly, held a machine gun-themed campaign event. “Get On Target For Victory in November,” said the invitation. “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”
Now Giffords has been shot allegedly by a crazy young man who had imbibed elements of Tea Party conspiracy-ism. We don’t know exactly what the reasons were for the attack. Still, it was precisely what the Tea Party, with all its gun brandishing and talk of armed revolution and “second amendment remedies,” has been hinting at for over a year. If they didn’t mean it, if they’re horrified by the notion that someone might have taken their words seriously, they’ll speak differently in the future. We’ll see.
Football Outsiders statistics guru Aaron Schatz previews the NFL playoffs with Tablet’s resident sports fanatic, Marc Tracy, and offers a strong outlook for pro football’s Jews
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.