United States is a nation prone to political violence. Nine presidents have been the targets of assassination, along with one president-elect and three presidential candidates. In addition, some eight governors, seven U.S. Senators, 10 Representatives, 11 mayors and 17 state legislators have been violently attacked. No other Western country with a population over 50 million has as high a number.
As to the reasons behind such attacks, Columbia University History Professor Steven Mintz says, “Political assassinations have tended to occur during periods of civil strife and intense partisanship. The first presidential assassination attempt — against Andrew Jackson in 1835 — coincided with a sharp upsurge in anti-abolitionist and ethnic violence… Between 1865 and 1877, 34 political officials were attacked, 24 of them fatally. These included a U.S. senator, two Congressional representatives, three governors, 10 state legislators, eight judges and 10 other officeholders. The 20th century saw three peak periods of political violence: at the turn of the century, the 1920s and 1930s, and 1963 to 1981. Each coincided with periods of civil unrest and bitter partisanship.”
When John F. Kennedy went to Dallas on November 22, 1963, conservative protesters were everywhere. One activist handed out 5,000 handbills about Kennedy modeled after police ‘most wanted’ circulars. “This man is wanted for treason,” the handbills read, for “turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations” and for having been “WRONG on innumerable issues affecting the security of the U.S.”
We see similar accusations against the sitting President these days. As noted by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman of the Princeton University in a recent article in the New York Times, something very ugly has been taking shape on the political scene since at least the time of 2008 presidential election campaign. As Senator John McCain’s chances faded, the crowds at his rallies were, by all accounts, increasingly gripped by insane rage. It was not just a mob phenomenon — it was visible in the right-wing media, and in the speeches of McCain and his running mate – Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
With an Afro-American President in the White House -- the first ever, who happens to have a Muslim-sounding name -- courtesy of his Kenyan roots, there is undeniably a climate of hate today. The diatribes are increasingly nastier and dangerous. The Department of Homeland Security reached the same conclusion: in April 2009 an internal report warned that right-wing extremism was on the rise, with a growing potential for violence. Last spring Politico.com reported on a surge in threats against members of Congress, which were already up by a whopping 300 percent. We are told that a number of the people making those threats had a history of mental illness. But there is no doubt that something about the current state of America has been causing far more ‘psychos’ than ever before to act out their ‘illness’ by engaging in political violence.
In a healthy liberal democracy there is no room for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary. But that is what has been happening in the USA, thanks to the Republican politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, and talk show hosts like Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly. As bluntly noted by a neocon -- David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, when asked by the ABC TV’s Ted Moran in March 22 of 2010 if the conservative talk show hosts had hijacked the Republican party, “Republicans originally thought that Fox (owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch) worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”
It was not too long ago that Rush Limbaugh said, “I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus--li¬ving fossils--s¬o we we’ll never forget what these people stood for.” Ann Coulter, another bigot and provocateur, said, “My only regret with Tim McVeigh (responsible for the Oklahoma Federal building blast and terrorism) is that he did not go to the New York Times building.” Glen Beck said, “Hang on, let me just tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore (an award-winning political commentator and documentary movie producer), and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could.”
It was only a few months ago that Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-endorsed candidate who failed to unseat Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) in last year’s midterm election, had said, “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking towards those Second Amendment remedies.” The statement makes reference to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms as a defense against an intrusive or oppressive government. And then there is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) who in 2009 said, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back.” She also said, “Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing. And the people - we the people - are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country.”
With the passage of health care reform last year, there has been increasingly violent language coming from opponents of the legislation, along with vandalism directed at Democratic members of Congress. Sarah Palin did her part to raise the rhetorical intensity, telling her Twitter followers in March of the last year, “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!’”
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was shot last week during a public event in Tucson on January 8, was among 20 other members of Congress who were on a so-called hit list published by Sarah Palin. Jesse Kelly, Giffords’s Republican opponent in the 2010 mid-term elections, similarly employed guns in a campaign event. He staged an event in July asking supporters to ‘get on target’ and ‘remove Gabrielle Giffords from office’ -- all while shooting ‘a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.’
Consider also the fact that one out of every five Americans is likely to have psychiatric problems. A small fraction of this population (some 40,000) is extremely vulnerable to what it sees and hears and is capable of committing terrorism.
So this latest massacre in Tucson in which 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl, were murdered and Representative Giffords severely wounded should not come as a surprise, especially in the state of Arizona where gun laws stand out as among the most permissive in the country. Last year, Arizona became only the third state that does not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The state also enacted another measure that allowed workers to take their guns to work, even if their workplaces banned firearms, as long as they kept them in their locked vehicles. In 2009, a law went into effect allowing people with concealed-weapons permits to take their guns into restaurants and bars. In the last two weeks, two bills were introduced relating to the right to carry guns on college campuses, one allowing professors to carry concealed weapons and one allowing anybody who can legally carry a gun to do so.
Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to Sarah Palin and the offensive target map issued by her political action committee that included crosshairs over Rep. Giffords’s district (among others). The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart emphatically stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC demanded a Palin-repudiation and Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos, wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was encouraged by a political climate of hate.
These accusations — that political actors in a liberal democracy contributed to the murder of 6 people — are extremely serious. The Republicans obviously don’t like such charges laid on their dirty hands. In a statement read out on Wednesday, Palin called herself the victim of ‘blood libel’ (by journalists and pundits) — the original term for blaming Jews for the (so-called) crucifixion of Jesus and an anti-Semitic rallying call that led to countless deaths of Jews, primarily in Europe and Russia. Many rabbis called her remarks insensitive, ill-chosen and offensive to Holocaust survivors and other victims of anti-Semitism. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said Palin's own words — that violent political language can endanger people — are ‘affirming exactly what her critics charge.’
Whatever may be the excuses now put forth by the messengers of hatred, fact remains that the crazies and terrorists don’t kill in a vacuum, and the vilest of American political leaders and commentators deserve to be called to account for their demagoguery and the danger that comes with it. They cannot have separate rules for Muslim loonies while being too forgiving for breeding their own homegrown terrorists and assassins. Evidence seized from the assassin’s (Loughner’s) home, about five miles from the shooting, indicated that he had planned to kill Rep. Giffords, according to documents filed in Federal District Court in Phoenix. His was not a random act of violence.
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, more than a million people have been killed with guns in the United States since 1968, when Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were killed. The New York Times reports that eight children and teenagers are killed a day in the USA due to gun violence. More than 150,000 Americans have been murdered since the beginning of the 21st century. This incessantly thriving procession of death that does not spare women or children ought to make us question seriously the plague of gun culture. Forgotten also is the fact that the states with more guns have more deaths resulting from gun violence. Unfortunately, Americans will take absolutely no steps, none whatsoever, to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.
In the aftermath of this latest murderous orgy, the most we will hear about is gun control. Public support for stricter gun control, however, has dropped significantly over the last couple of decades, and there is little evidence to suggest that mass shootings change opinions. And if the comedian Jon Stewart is to be believed, the sale of automatic guns has actually increased after the assassination attempt on Giffords.
Some 37 years ago when Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) was asked to comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, he wisely said, “chickens coming home to roost.” The sad fact is unless American public is serious about reining in its addiction to gun, war and violence, the horror prompted by the attack in Tucson last week will pass, the outrage will fade, and the murders will continue. It’ll be all over again with new targets, and new Columbine and new Tucson killing fields!
See also the NY Times article here.