Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Tragic Consequences of The Right Wing's Incendiary Rhetoric

Christina Taylor Green, the nine year-old child who was gunned down and killed at the event for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was featured in the book, “Faces Of Hope: Babies Born On 9/11.” President Obama ran on the promise of hope and renewal in our politics. While many of his supporters may have been disappointed with the compromises of Obama two years into his presidency, he has secured his place in history as the Democratic president who finally delivered on the promise of universal healthcare coverage for the American people.

Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords cast a YES vote for healthcare reform. She represents Arizona’s 8th Congressional District and those who know her best describe her as a “moderate” and “centrist” politician. Arizona’s conservative governor Brewer calls her a “friend.” Yesterday Giffords was shot in the head by a disturbed individual during a meet-and-greet event for her constituents. Six people were killed, among them the nine year-old child Christina Taylor Green, a federal judge, and an aide to Rep. Giffords. Many others were wounded, some critically, including Rep. Giffords who is fighting for her life after surgery. 

Who, or what, is responsible for this horrific killing spree? Are we once again to dismiss it as the act of one demented individual, a “loner,” yet another lone gunman?

It does not appear the shooter was a member of the Tea Party or any other extremist group, but it’s still too early to say. From what little we can gather of his murky online profile, he has dropped enough reading influences to place him in any number of political camps. The Tea Party has already distanced itself from the gunman. Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation issued a typically vitriolic statement, a classless diatribe purposefully mischaracterizing Rep. Giffords and injecting political invective as she lies in a hospital fighting for her life:
Congressman Giffords was a liberal, but that does not matter now. No one should be the victim of violence because of their political beliefs and certainly a member of Congress should not be shot and killed on a street corner. Take a moment to say a prayer for her and her family, as well as the others who were so tragically murdered this afternoon.”
For some reason, Phillips uses the masculine pronoun “Congressman” to describe Giffords, then deliberately and gratuitously labels her “a liberal.” That is a lie. Giffords is a moderate, centrist Democrat. (Rep. Raul Grijalva, Chairman of the Progressive Caucus and a fellow Arizonan Democratic member of Congress said: “Her whole future's ahead of her. She's a moderate; I'm not. She's my friend. Our difference of opinion did not interfere with our friendship.”) As if to deflect the pejorative lie, Phillips says, “but that does not matter now.” It was the tasteless opening phrase to set up this political harangue:
“At a time like this, it is terrible that we do have to think about politics, but no matter what the shooter's motivations where, the left is going to blame this on the Tea Party Movement. Already on liberal websites, the far left is trying to accuse the Tea Party of being involved. While we need to take a moment to extend our sympathies to the families of those who died, we cannot allow the hard left to do what it tried to do in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing. Within the entire political spectrum, there are extremists, both on the left and the right. Violence of this nature should be decried by everyone and not used for political gain.”
[Italicized emphasis mine.]

While Phillips uses terms such as “left” and “far left” and “hard left” interchangeably without defining them, with the broad smear brush of right wing propaganda, I challenge him or anyone else on the right to point to a single group or organization on the left that promotes the right's violence, guns, racism and bigotry (birthers, racists, anti-Islamic bigotry, anti-immigrant nativists), to include politicians like Rick Perry of Texas talking up secession and the “tyranny” of government, and Sharron Angle, Nevada’s Tea Party candidate, citing “2nd Amendment remedies” if  “government” does not act in accordance with the people’s will, however that may be defined.

Whatever denunciations the right wing may hurl at the left, one thing they cannot say is that progressives are anti-government. The left does not favor the overthrow of government, cutting or ending taxes, repealing healthcare and financial reform, abolishing the Department of Education and the EPA, cutting and privatizing Social Security and Medicare, increasing the Defense budget, or radically changing the Constitution.

Although ideological underpinnings are relevant, the governing distinction is not between left and right — it is between those who believe government is the enemy and those who believe is is a power for good. It is between those who, at best, view government as “a necessary evil” and those of us who believe a strong central government is essential to the prosperity and survival of this great nation.

This argument is as old as the republic itself and it is central to understanding the violence.

The demented individual who pulled the trigger and shot Rep. Giffords, gunning down innocent bystanders gathered in a peaceful democratic assemblage of civic duty, may not have been a member of the Tea Party but he was driven to murderous violence by anti-government rhetoric and vitriol on the right, including that from the thuggish bullies at Giffords campaign events who yelled “LIAR!” at her and trashed her campaign offices, as they did the offices of fellow Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva. Pointing an accusing finger at Sarah Palin, Mr. Grijalva said:
“The climate has gotten so toxic in our political discourse, setting up for this kind of reaction for too long. It's unfortunate to say that. I hate to say that. If you're an opponent, you're a deadly enemy,” Grijalva said in an interview with the Huffington Post of the mindset among Arizona extremists. “Anybody who contributed to feeding this monster had better step back and realize they're threatening our form of government.”
Grijalva said that Tea Party leader Sarah Palin should reflect on the rhetoric that she has employed. “She — as I mentioned, people contributing to this toxic climate — Ms. Palin needs to look at her own behavior, and if she wants to help the public discourse, the best thing she could do is to keep quiet.”

In an interview with MSNBC after her district office was vandalized the night the healthcare bill was passed, Rep. Giffords said, “We are on Sarah Palin's targeted list. The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of the gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action.” (Note: Disregard Chuck Todd's foot-in-mouth disease; he's part of the mealy-mouthed-media-seeking-equivalence-where-there-is-none problem.)

These are the images of the list of targeted Democratic Congresspersons in Sarah Palin’s crosshairs, taken from her PAC website and her Facebook page:

 And this is how Rep. Giffords’s opponent, Jesse Kelly, endorsed by the Tea Party advertised a campaign event:

Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik was angry and emotional. Two of his close friends Ms. Giffords and Judge John Roll (who was killed) were among the victims. He said it was a “very sad day for Tucson” and a “horrendous, horrendous, senseless, unbelievable crime.” Sherrif Dupnik minced no words laying blame for this:
“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” He said it is time for the country to “do a little soul searching” and added: “The vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business ... This has not become the nice United States that most of us grew up in.

It's not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included. That's the sad thing about what's going on in America: pretty soon we're not going to be able to find reasonable decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.”
Indeed. It isn’t only the incendiary rhetoric of Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle (to name but an iceberg chip on the right) but that of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and the Fox network, incessantly day after day, stoking the flames of hatred and bigotry, and yes, violence. We reported on this blog how one of Beck’s constant targets, and the ACLU, narrowly escaped a similar fate to the horrible shootings at Rep. Giffords’s event, because the gunman was apprehended in a wild shootout with California Highway Patrol; en route to commit his killing spree. Later he confessed to having been influenced by Beck’s words, and targeted Beck’s targets. In a weird case of circular logic, the mainstream media underreported this, presumably on the rationale that to do so would be to encourage copycats.

Now it’s finally happened. After three years of  anti-Obama, anti-Democratic rhetoric from the right, after the threats against President Obama quadrupled compared to threats against any previous president and those against members of Congress, mostly Democratic, doubled in 2009 after passage of the healthcare law compared to the previous year — it finally happened.

And so I ask again: Who, or what, is to blame for this act of mass murder, for this act of violence directed at a member of Congress, our government?

In his disturbing YouTube site, the shooter Jared Lee Loughner, amid his lunatic ravings wrote these words, which are particularly telling of the rhetoric of the right — and therefore particularly disturbing:
“What’s government if words don’t have meaning?” This meaning, in his sick mind, must derive from the U.S. Constitution:

“[R]eading the second United States Constitution, I can’t trust the current government because of the ratifications: the government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.” This obsession with “grammar” feeds into the anti-immigrant nativism directed at Spanish-speaking residents of Rep. Giffords’ 8th District:

“If you’re literate in English grammar, then you comprehend English grammar. The majority of people, who reside in District-8, are illiterate – hilarious. I don’t control your English grammar structure, but you control your English grammar structure.”
And to “rationalize” or justify the violence he is about to commit, Loughner deligitimizes our government using much the same rhetoric of rabid anti-government “patriots” on the extreme right, e.g. Timothy McVeigh, who then commit horrific acts of violence:
“No! I won’t pay my debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver!

Loughner’s anti-government rant proposes a new “currency” and “revolution” against our currency which has enshrined the phrase, In God we trust:

“No I won’t trust in God!”

Then Loughner offers his “revolutionary’s” rationale for committing a terrorist act:

“If the property owners and government officials are no longer in ownership of their land and laws from a revolution then the revolutionary’s (sic) from the revolution are in control of the land and laws.

The property owners and government officials are no longer in ownership of their land and laws from a revolution.

Thus, the revolutionary’s (sic) from the revolution are in control of the land and laws.”
One astute observer noted the connection between Loughner and Ayn Rand — whose book “We The Living” is mentioned in his YouTube profile — in which Loughner “appears to be attempting to use the basic rules of logic to frame his bizarre, paranoid philosophy.” Loughner pushed back against being labeled a terrorist: “I define terrorist. Thus, a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon. If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem. You call me a terrorist. Thus, the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem.”

Yesterday on the Huffington Post, former Colorado senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart wrote:
“The degree to which violent words and phrases are considered commonplace is striking. Candidates are “targeted.” An opponent is “in the crosshairs.” Liberals have to be “eliminated.” Opponents are “enemies.” This kind of language emanates largely from those who claim to defend American democracy against those who would destroy it, who are evil, and who want to “take away our freedoms.”

Today we have seen the results of this rhetoric. Those with a megaphone, whether provided by public office or a media outlet, have responsibilities. They cannot avoid the consequences of their blatant efforts to inflame, anger, and outrage. We all know that there are unstable and potentially dangerous people among us. To repeatedly appeal to their basest instincts is to invite and welcome their predictable violence.

So long as we all tolerate this kind of irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric or, in the case of some commentators, treat it with delight, reward it, and consider it cute, so long will we place all those in public life, whom the provocateurs dislike, in the crosshairs of danger.

That this is carried out, and often rewarded, in the name of the Constitution, democratic rights and liberties, and patriotism is a mockery of all this nation claims to believe and almost all of us continue to struggle to preserve. America is better than this.”
When the healthcare law was enacted, I wrote on this blog:

Finally, four days after repeated instances of violence and vandalism erupted against the home of one lawmaker’s brother and regional offices of House Democratic members who voted for healthcare reform, after phoned, mailed, shouted, faxed, signage death threats were made against individual House Democrats, after angry protesters hurled vitriol and racist invective against legends of the civil rights struggles John Lewis and James Clyburn, after homophobic epithets were screamed at Barney Frank and xenophobic language shouted at a Latino House Democrat, after an African American House member was spat on by a rabid Teabagger egged on by sign-waving Republicans outside, after Texas Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer yelled “baby killer!” from the House floor at Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, who then received multiple death threats — and after House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Democratic Whip James Clyburn emerged from their Caucus meeting with Congressional security to denounce the incidents of violence, the climate of incivility, and report on the widespread threats

Only then did House Republican Leader John Boehner, with Eric Cantor, see fit to condemn the violence.

Democrats are not satisfied with the late Republican condemnation of violence, including a severed gas line in the home of Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello’s brother, who has four children. His address was posted online by the Teabaggers. The FBI is investigating. This is the result of a widespread campaign of lies, smears, and misinformation by a recklessly irresponsible (yes, it is an oxymoron) wingnut right.

There is a name for this — the “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” defined as the “pathological hatred of the President posing as patriotism has infected the Republican Party” from the violent fringes of its Teabagger storm troops. This hatred has now expanded to encompass all of the Democratic Party … as Rep. Bart Stupak affirmed, into acts of “domestic terrorism.”

As one Ohio Democratic Congressman who was targeted by the Republicans’ storm troopers said of a careless remark by John Boehner after confronting him: “Words and actions have consequences.” Indeed they do. You cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Ever.

There are those on the Right who have incessantly, day after day, yelled FIRE! In a crowded theater. They are responsible for the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Griffiths. It only takes one crazed lunatic to internalize this incendiary rhetoric and act on those words — with deadly force.

It happened yesterday.

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