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Is political rhetoric to blame for Arizona shooting?

In the week since the shooting at a constituency meeting in Arizona, many have blamed the fiery nature of recent US political discourse for the tragedy. The evidence does not support such an accusation.

Submitted by James Le Grice on Friday, 14 January 2011
Arizona gunman Jared Loughner

(C) DonkeyHotey

Almost as soon as the shots rang out in Tucson last Saturday, fingers pointed to the Tea Party Movement, Sarah Palin, and other critics of the Democratic administration given to incendiary speech. It seemed obvious that the shooting must be connected to the heated rhetoric that has dominated US politics over the past year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labelled the attack “a form of extremism”, and former President Bill Clinton argued that the tone of political discourse must change, a sentiment President Obama reiterated in his address on Wednesday night. Sarah Palin struck back, accusing news pundits of “blood libel” against her and other right-wing politicians.

Is it fair to say that the Arizona massacre is evidence that the rhetoric of American political discourse has become dangerous? The circumstances do not suggest that it is. Fiery political rhetoric becomes dangerous when those spreading it, and their audience alike, lose faith in the institutions the political system provides for them to express their views, and turn to extraordinary measures. But last Saturday’s shooting in Tucson, Arizona is not evidence that this has occurred. It is evidence that a mentally unstable individual has gone on a shooting spree in an extreme plea for attention.

The Tea Party Movement was characterized by its allusions to rebels who took up arms against the forces of government in the American War of Independence, and its impassioned anger-rousing rallies. Many within the movement idolized ex-Governor Sarah Palin, and she encouraged the angry speech with gun-based metaphors such as a map of the US with crosshairs over 20 districts represented by Democratic congressmen who voted in favour of health insurance reform. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a victim of Saturday’s shooting, was one of the politicians targeted.

However, political dissenters who used violent imagery like the target map clearly stated they were metaphors for the November elections, not literal commands. Their audience understood them as intended. The objects of anger were people within the government, not government itself, and those expressing angry rhetoric also expressed a rigid adherence to the US Constitution. Thus, people identifying with the Tea Party and other conservative dissident groups demonstrated passionate faith in the political system, and utilized its institutions by backing electoral candidates rather than resorting to extraordinary means like assassinations or terrorism.

After the right-wing victory in November’s elections, the fiery rhetoric died down. Most of the “targets” had been eliminated and the “war” had already occurred, all within the confines of the system. After Saturday’s shooting, no voice from the dissenting crowd has spoken up in favour of gunman Jared Loughner’s actions; everyone who has made a statement has decried the shooting.

Compare this to the assassination of Punjabi Governor Salman Taseer, which took place in the same week. Hundreds of religious leaders in Pakistan made statements in praise of the assassin, and 50,000 people rallied in Karachi to show their support for the murder. There, dissenters clearly do not have much faith in their political system’s means of removing unpopular leaders, and feel the need to turn to violence in order to be heard.

Jared Loughner does not appear to be part of the dissenting right-wing movement, nor does he even appear to be a political idealist. While he has posted a number of government-related messages on Youtube and Facebook, these messages are of an altogether different theme than the rhetoric of the Tea Party. Loughner’s rhetoric is not against members of the government, but against the government itself, which he accuses of practicing mind control.

Given that his grievances are so different in nature to those expressed in the fiery rhetoric of the past year, it seems unlikely that anything Sarah Palin or the Tea Party said would have influenced his actions. If there was an external influence on Loughner, it is more likely to have been a government conspiracy theorist than a critic of specific legislative agenda.

Loughner’s paranoia is not limited to government though. His “Final Message” video on Youtube is an incoherent list of syllogisms, touching on themes from linguistics to the Marine Corps. It is insight into an obviously disturbed, possibly schizophrenic, mind. One must ask why Loughner was posting so many of his thoughts on the internet. It does not appear that he wished to persuade others to his point of view; his videos and writing consist of rambling arguments lacking any craft.

It does appear that he was desperate for attention, which makes his shooting spree more likely a deluded man’s cry to be noticed than an idealistic crusade or a meticulous assassination plot. There are questions that need to be answered about his relationship with family and friends, namely why no one close to Loughner picked up on his descent into madness and got him psychological help. Loughner was left alone long enough for his delusions to reach a dangerous level. So if it is necessary to point a finger in the wake of a tragedy, then the finger should point to those who had the closest relationship with Jared Loughner, not heated political critics.

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