Cole Sedgwick considers the effect of heated rhetoric on violent direct action

Gabrielle Giffords: shot in the head on 8th January

By American stand ards the Tucson shootings on 8th January weren’t anything out of the ordinary. In a country that has experienced both the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres in recent times, the shooting of 19 people and the death of six in a crowded Arizona mall at the hands of a crazed individual is hardly unusual. What made the incident so important were the allegedly political motives of the suspected killer, Jared Lee Loughner.

Having claimed in his blog that ‘You don’t have to accept the federalist laws’ of healthcare reform championed by the Obama administration, the mentally unstable Loughner specifically targeted the Democratic Congresswoman and advocate of reforms Gabrielle Giffords. It seems clear that Loughner’s right-wing views on big government and the apparently ‘treasonous’ laws imposed by the Obama administration have been influenced by the increasingly powerful Tea Party movement in the USA, which includes talk-radio star Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck of Fox News and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Shrewdly naming themselves after the patriotic Boston Tea Party movement of 1773, whose direct resistance to the British system of unrepresentative colonial government helped bring an end to British rule in America, these individuals claim to be the true protectors of the Jeffersonian ideals of individual liberty and limited government intervention that are enshrined in the Constitution.

While these rightwing, libertarian causes didn’t necessarily lead to the violence witnessed in Tucson, the political rhetoric favoured by this influential movement as a way of disrupting the Democratic administration of President Obama must be seriously called into question.

Preying on the prejudices of ordinary Americans, the Tea Party movement, with the help of wealthy sponsors such as billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, have consistently attacked Obama since his election in 2008 with a slur of unsubstantiated claims regarding his nationality, patriotism and general fitness to serve. Threatened by his liberal causes and the sweeping manner in which he came to power, the Right in America have aggressively used race, religion, and arguments over birth certificates and supposedly socialist leanings to discredit the Obama administration and rally conservative Middle America.

With an air of inevitability, the Tucson shooting is the culmination of aggressive political vitriol aimed at the Obama administration and the liberal conspiracy it has come to represent for some in America. According to Michael Tomasky of Guardian America, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has recorded over 12 killings by, or arrests of, rightwing extremists who have attempted to commit acts of political violence since 2008. Even before the Tucson shooting, Gabrielle Giffords had received death threats and an attack on her district office, following her vote in favour of Obama’s healthcare reform bill. Obama himself has received numerous death threats and most recently a 78-year-old leftwing academic, Frances Fox Piven, has received threats on her life following a hate campaign levelled at her by Glenn Beck, regarding a radical article she wrote in 1966 entitled ‘The Weight of the Poor’.

In this political climate, it was not going to be long before an event like Tucson took place. Paranoid and prone to believing conspiracy theories, a person such as Loughner was always likely to take the law into his own hands. Giffords herself was well aware of the dangers of such a climate. Commenting on Sarah Palin’s famous crosshair imagery captioned ‘Reload and Take Aim’ that had been used to encourage supporters to target Gifford’s marginal constituency, Giffords eerily predicted the ‘consequences’ of such rhetoric.

While it is wrong to directly blame Sarah Palin or the Tea Party for the shooting, it can be argued that the language chosen by some individuals in US politics has become increasingly irresponsible. A country that has experienced the Manson killings of 1968, following a deranged interpretation of the Beatles song ‘Helter Skelter’, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, along with the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, should understand that the use of violent imagery and talk of watering ‘The tree of liberty…with the blood of patriots and tyrants’, will lead to direct action by individuals equipped with easily accessible firearms.

It is, however, worth remembering that the Left in America has also used violent, war-like language to attack bills and policies it does not like, as Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post has pointed out. For instance, in 2008 at a Philadelphia fundraiser, Obama claimed: ‘If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun’. Nonetheless, there is a sharp distinction between attacking a rival presidential campaign in this way compared to specifically putting an individual between rifle crosshairs, or claiming your president is inherently anti-American. Threatened by an administration that is referred to by Fox News as a mix of Communism, Fascism, and Islam – every ‘evil’ America has sought to defend itself against for the past 60 years – mentally unstable individuals such as Loughner will always feel justified in taking direct action. It is up to those in positions of power and responsibility, whether Left or Right, to tone down their violent rhetoric.

Cole Sedgwick