Something Had to Give

by Alexander Cockburn, January 13, 2011

Six dead and Gabrielle Giffords, a 40-year old congresswoman hanging to life by a thread. In the wake of the lethal fusillade in Tucson Republicans came close to confessing to complicity by reason of incitement. Sarah Palin pulled her crosshair go-shoot’em target pics of Democrats from her site. Republicans in Congress suspended their opening political onslaught for a week. The right-wing commenators settled down to a steady chorus about Loughner being a lone nut, maybe even a secret Commie. He had Orwell’s Animal Farm and Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest flagged on his site, next to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. A fusion nutball maybe.

In the relentless escalation in violent political rhetoric across the past couple of years, it’s been a pretty safe bet that sooner or later someone on the right would try to shoot a Democrat, the preferred target being President Barack Obama. But Obama doesn’t sit in a parking lot outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, minus bodyguards, chatting to all and sundry.

Tucson is a schizoid town, pleasantly laid back but also with heavy enforcement under- and over-tones. The last time I spoke at a public meeting down there, a couple of years ago, the decidedly counter-cultural audience looked like a throwback to the late 70s in New York, which is probably where many in the crowd originally hailed from. The sheriff, Tom Dupnik, gave the right an influential whack across the chops in the very first hours after the shooting: “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 in this country, is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” It’s an informal place, which is why it was not surprising for Rep Giffords to set up her table in a Safeway grocery store’s parking lot, chatting with locals. This is what she was doing on Saturday. So Jared Lougher, 22, with his newly purchased 9mm Glock with extended magazine, was able to stride up to within a yard of the congresswoman and shoot her in the head, then spray the small area with an extended salvo.

With this 20-second fusillade Loughner killed US District Judge John Roll, 63; Dorothy Murray, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76, Phyllis Scheck, 79; Gabriel Zimmerman, 30 and Christina Green, 9. Zimmerman was Gifford’s director of community outreach and had helped organize the event. Christina Green, born on September 11, 2001, was taken along to see Giffords by a relative, because the 9-year old was interested in public affairs. Federal judge Roll had just dropped by to say hello to Giffords, who shared his liberal opposition to Arizona’s fierce stance on illegal immigrants.

You can date the moment Republicans and Tea Partiers reckoned heavy talk about guns was okay, a sure headline grabber and vote puller with the right wing base, from the coverage of a man in New Hampshire last August with a pistol strapped to his leg who stood outside an event where Obama was promoting his health care bill. He carried a sign saying, “It Is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty,” a reference to a Thomas Jefferson quote : “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Open carriage of handguns is legal in New Hampshire, and the man was standing on the private property of a nearby church that had no problem with an armed fellow hanging around. A few days later a black man stood outside Arizona’s Phoenix Convention Center where President Barack Obama was speaking, with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol on his belt. Like New Hampshire, Arizona is an “open-carry” state, which means anyone legally allowed to have a firearm can carry it in public, so long as it's visible. The Secret Service said the man would not have been allowed to take the weapon into the hall where Obama was speaking.

We’re not standing on a level deck here. When George Bush was president cops would arrest protesters just carrying signs by the side of the road along which the president was scheduled to drive. A guy with a rifle or a side arm would have been behind bars in ten seconds, in New Hampshire or Arizona or anywhere else.

Sarah Palin played to her base all through the last four months of 2010 with website pictures of select Democratic candidates' districts — where there was a Tea Party challenger — with crosshair gunsights over them. Giffords got this treatment and stated publicly that Palin should know this sort of rhetoric could have consequences. Only after the shooting, Palin pulled the image from her site, just after TLC cancelled her Alaska show and will not be bringing it back for a second season. The cancellation didn’t have anything to do with the shooting in Tucson. The show was fairly solid in the ratings at 3.2 million viewers and it seems TLC’s worry was that if Palin runs for the Republican presidential nomination, they’d have to give her opponents equal access time.

But will Palin now be pilloried as Loughner’s motivator? She’ll certainly get flak, but it will be from people who loathe her anyway. Her base will construe her as a martyr to the commie conspiracy led by Obama and will turn out for her in even greater numbers. They’ll quote Jefferson even more fervently: “And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

“Don’t retreat, reload” was one of Palin’s lines to her supporters when one of her Tea Party picks was whacked in the polling booth in November. Other Tea Party maenads had their own punchy lines. Michele Bachmann, a Republican rep from Minnesota, truly over the top and now locked up by nervous Republican leaders in the House Intelligence Committee, where by definition she has to keep her mouth shut, has been in the habit of saying, “I want citizens armed and dangerous.” Tea Partier Sharon Angle, who nearly defeated Senate Majority leader Harry Reid last November in Nevada, liked to invoke the possibility of “2nd Amendment remedies.” Conservative Florida radio host Joyce Kaufman, designated staff director of a new elected Florida congressman, quit her job after two days in Washington when a video clip surfaced displaying her exclaiming at a political rally last July 4, “If ballots don't work, bullets will.”

Support for Obama’s health care bill and opposition to Arizona’s new anti-illegal immigrant law have been Gifford’s liberal political features and doubtless what got her Tucson office vandalized during her recent successful election bid for a third term. Arizona’s Rep Raul Grijalva also got threats. Giffords narrowly beat a Tea Party opponent, Jesse Kelly. She’s been a blue dog Democrat — meaning that this former Republican remained fairly conservative. Giffords has supported gun rights and her most passionate concern has been the deficit — a core Republican and Tea Party obsession. She voted against Nancy Pelosi’s reelection as the Democrats’ leader in the House. She’s Jewish, which has been offered as a possible reason Loughner targeted her.

The shock jock right is now trying to argue that Loughner is somehow a commie. It won’t wash. He was a gold bug, tormented by the shriveling status of the dollar as America’s fiat currency. This is standard on the right-wing menu. (More interesting is his charge that the American government was trying to control the citizenry through grammar, an accusation that a member of the Marxist Frankfurt school would argue as having some merit, though I doubt Loughner is versed in Adorno or Marcuse.) He was sufficiently unstable to be kicked out by his school, which alluded to disturbing posts on his site. His fellow students rightly thought he was a loose cannon that might well explode. He wasn’t on any law enforcement computer in terms that prevented him from buying his Glock.

He was whacked out and delusional, seemingly incapable of separating reality from rhetoric and fantasy, which one social psychologist said over the weekend to be the mental state of about 1 in every 12 Americans — a low-ball number in my opinion. After arrest he did remember enough of the Bill of Rights to insist on his Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent and not to incriminate himself. The swelling idiom of violence no doubt fired him up. In the recent election campaign Arizona’s District 26 House candidate Terri Proud posed with a group of women holding firearms.

There’s an ad on the Pima County Republican website (now scrubbed), placed by Giffords’ opponent, Kelly, in the recent election.

Giffords clings to life. In deference to her family – her husband, Mark Kelly, is an astronaut, scheduled to command the last shuttle mission this spring — surgeons will not describe the exact path of the bullet through Giffords’ brain. About 1.7 million people in the United States suffer traumatic brain injuries every year, with about 20% of them caused by violence, including gunshots. About 52,000 people die as a result of their injuries and about 275,000 are hospitalized. There’ll be emotional onslaughts on the 2nd Amendment, but zero chance of any change in the nation’s gun laws, which presently support some 200 million firearms in the hands of the citizenry, with some 50 million families with one gun or more on the premises. I doubt the rhetoric will stay subdued for long.

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