I am not going to try to diagnose Jared Lee Loughner or offer some overarching rationale for why this past Saturday this 22-year-old evidently disturbed man attempted to assassinate US Representative (D-AZ) Gabrielle Giffords, who is now in critical care and still fighting for her life, though it increasingly appears as though she will make a strong recovery. In his attempt to kill her he went on a rampage, murdering her aide, Gabe Zimmerman, 30; Federal judge John Roll, 63; Christina Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl born on September 11, 200l, who was deeply interested in governmental affairs; Dorothy Murray, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Phyllis Scheck, 79. He also wounded a number of other bystanders, making January 8th one of the most tragic days in 2011 America.
One thing that made this crime possible is the easily availability of semiautomatic weapons, such as the Glock that Loughner apparently was able to acquire without any problems. Another, that many across the Net have pointed, is the extremist rhetoric that is now so common, though I would suggest that pointing to this backdrop does not mean that I am drawing a direct link and, as I've seen some do, I'd add that not forget such rhetoric isn't new in American history and that as recently as the 1990s not only was such rhetoric in wide circulation, but there was surge in private militias, attacks targeting racial, ethnic, sexual and religious minorities, and spectacularly horrific acts like the Oklahoma City Bombing, which killed over 100 people, occurred in 1995.
Let me make two micro points about rhetoric and discourse. First, rhetoric, one of the oldest aspects of verbal exchange (it precedes written language), is meant to have psychophysical effects. The way that one speaks can shape the way others act. This is why orators going back thousands of years were trained in the art of rhetoric. To speak of "rhetoric," even in its degraded contemporary form, then, is to speak of language with the potential make people think and act. We remember the best rhetoric: "Four score and seven years...," "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," "I have a dream..." Second, anyone who has passed through or even near a lit crit class in the last 35 years has learned a little bit about "discourse," primarily via Foucault and his adepts. One lesson anyone who has paid attention learns (and I'm simplifying radically here) is that society, and people in society, change and are changed not simply by individual acts, history, material culture, etc., but also by the discourse that circulates--the language, the ideas, the memes, etc.--throughout an era in any given time. It shapes what people say, think, do, create, and so on. Foucault took the idea in very important and sometimes controversial directions, but it is now pretty much a given, at least in contemporary humanities scholarship, that discursive production, is something always to consider.
I thus do believe this extremist rhetoric and its discursive effects, aided and abetted by fanatics employing the media new and old, have increased, as has the failure of many in the corporate media, or in the upper reaches of the political left even to make any effort to counter it. I also believe that the "eliminationist rhetoric" in particular, which New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote about on Monday, from politicians no less, is perhaps more prominent. Yet let me make clear that I am not saying there is a direct causational link between the crazy ranting and the crazy acts. One of the tricks I've noticed online over the past few days is people on the right citing President Obama's "if they bring a knife, we bring a gun" remark as a counterweight, missing the point that this is an old saw, composed of two metonyms and defensive in its meaning, as opposed to a direct offensive call for violence against opponents, or for revolutionary violence (Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment" solutions), etc.
Nevertheless, to show that the events of this past weekend were not in isolation, I want to post the following link from Dave Neiwert via Digby that details a series of similar events that have occurred since the last presidential election cycle got underway.
-- 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.Whether this is a higher or lower number of such incidents, I cannot say. It is clear, however, that a number of people have come unhinged, and in many of these cases, certain threads keep reappearing. I had pointed to some of them on this blog long before the November 2008 election, and their casual usage even by members of the press (the slurs against Obama's name, etc.), and we are seeing the results. Perhaps now the media will wake up and stop furthering this rhetoric and discourse, though as Foucault and others might say, it is already out there, and how it plays out, especially with the economy listing along, failed right-wing economic ideas still dominating policy discussions, and another major election just on the horizon, we'll have to see.
-- 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 Wichita, 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: Seven militiamen from the Hutaree Militia in Michigan and Ohio are arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate local police officers with the intent of sparking a new civil war.
-- 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.
To give another perspective, from someone living in Tucson, here's acclaimed writer Larry McMurtry's reading of the situation there, "American Tragedy," from the New York Review of Books blog.