An Assassination in Tucson

9 January 2011

Washington is such a small place that it’s little surprise to discover that I know people who were friends with at least one of the people murdered in Tucson yesterday. The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords during which six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old, were murdered is an appalling atrocity that if the shooter weren’t a young, white man would probably be considered an act of domestic terrorism.

Far less appalling than the act but still disconcerting (though hardly surprising) was the rush to pin ultimate responsibility for the murders on someone other than the gunman himself. Toby Harnden has a good post rounding-up some of the attempts to blame this on Fox News and Sarah Palin here. (Ben Smith has a good piece on this in today’s edition of Politico).

So apparently a pretty stupid Sarah Palin poster from last year in which gunsights were slapped over 20 districts carried by John McCain from which the Democratic incumbent had voted for Obamacare, is now to be considered the inspiration for this atrocity. Mrs Palin has some influence, but let’s not get carried away. For what it’s worth – and readers know that I’m hardly her greatest fan – I do not think she is very much more responsible for this abomination than Jodie Foster was for John Hinckley’s attempt to murder Ronald Reagan. In any case, Palin’s poster was only a souped-up version of a campaign trope that both parties have been happy to employ in the past. (That said, Palin Presidential Futures, already worth shorting, took another dive yesterday.)

But the sordid temptations of politics are such that people who argue there’s little sensible connection between Hollywood "violence" and real-world violence now suddenly insist that it just takes a silly poster and plenty of over-heated rhetoric to inspire America’s Top Kooks to come out of the closet, all guns blazing. And of course the reverse is also true: people happy to blame Grand Theft Auto for just about anything now insist there’s no connection at all between the tone of political discourse ("Second Amendment Solutions!") and some nut taking these notions just a little bit too seriously.

Clearly, things are a little more complicated than that. While you cannot legislate for lunatics there’s also little need to give them any encouragement. But the more we learn about Jared Loughner the more it seems probable – at this stage – that he’s the kind of mentally unstable person who neither needed nor took any inspiration from Palin or the Tea Party or anything other than powerful fantasies that were his own creation.

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And this too is normal. Political violence of this type is almost definitionally unhinged but it’s striking how rare it turns out to be the case that the perpetrators can be fitted into one neat political profile or another. And even when they can their targets are frequently so at odds with the meaning of their supposed "philosophy" that trying to "make sense" of such matters becomes an even more frustrating task.

Anyway, we may think these are unusually turbulent times, fanned by unusual quantities of cheap and phoney populism, scaremongering and hysteria but this is not in fact the case. ‘Twas ever thus and the 1960s offer a perspective that might be worth looking at if only, despite all the huffing and puffing, to appreciate how calm and at peace America is these days. Remember McKinley and Garfield too, if you want to go still further back. America ain’t tearing itself apart these days, no matter how much Paul Krugman tries to persuade you it must be. The paranoid style has rarely lacked followers and, just as significantly, the centre has also always had a healthy paranoia of its own. Sometimes, as is the case today or in the aftermath of any other act of grim violence, this will seem unusually plausible.

Most of the time, however, the scare stories about a new era of Militiamen or whatever are seriously over-cooked. The temper of these American  times – despite what you will read everywhere today and tomorrow – is not unusually rebarbative or even uncommonly obtuse. (What might be said, mind you, is that the level of rhetoric is out of proportion to the stakes involved in the political game these days.)

The fact of the matter is that a country of 300 million people cannot help but be generously larded with oddballs, freaks, paranoids and assorted other nutters. Couple that with the American genius for self-realization and you soon begin to wonder why there isn’t more politically-themed violence than is actually the case.

That’s hardly a comforting thought, not least in the aftermath of this gruesome, shocking really, attack. But while it’s true that the Obama presidency has (unwittingly) licensed any number of kooks to pursue their dreams, it’s hardly the case that American political rhetoric was as genteel as cucumber sandwiches during the George W Bush years either. But this is America, yo.

And it’s not just America either. Among the more trivial, but still annoying, responses to yesterday’s horror was an endless waterfall of Brits (on Twitter) offering patronising platitudes about gun laws and all the rest of it. It is, I suppose, a mark of how completely the issue of gun control has been settled that the discussion this morning careers around the issue of political rhetoric. Fifteen or 25 years ago the argument would have been about guns. The Second Amendment cannot, however, be wished away and nor can the remnants of the Frontier. It is what it is.

But, look, political violence is not restricted to the United States. Ask the Swedes. And it’s only 10 years since Nigel Jones, then a Liberal Democrat MP, was wounded by a samurai-sword wielding maniac who also murdered one of Mr Jones’s aides. Then there was Stephen Timms, the Labour MP stabbed by a lunatic (albeit a muslim lunatic) earlier this year.

There be monsters everywhere and it remains the case that while it may be that the "average person" might be swayed to some extent by passing political fashions these actions are so far from the mainstream that pinning "responsibility" for them on someone else is a fool’s errand since, almost by definition, if it weren’t one thing it would be another and there’s no way of knowing what that thing might be either.

In the aftermath of these affairs you can see why everyone wants there to be some easily-digestible package of blame and responsibility, some unbreakable chain of events that leads clearly and unmistakably from Station A to Station Z with all stops in between properly accounted for. But unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    View is nice.

  • A. MacAulay

    I find this all too simple! And having watched several Senate grandees on CNN do everything possible not to confront the questions that must be asked, hypocritical. When is any one going to say it clearly that this sort of tragedy is a result of the gun laws, is really inevitable and given the advantages of having the US privatley armed, acceptable collateral damage. Neither Canada or Mexico will ever risk invading the US because behind every bush, tree and lamp-post is and armed citizen! That they shoot at each other and their pols from time to time is sad, but on balance worth it.

    No-one either would dispute that say, a Hell-Fire preacher or Imam can influence a mob, or even Mark Antony or Goebbels, etc. etc. Especially if the mob is highly superstitious, ignorant, paranoic and confronted with a probably difficult future. The inflammatory rhetoric against Obama, Democrats, liberals, foreigners, Wikileaks and Julian Assange from Palin and the TP Right defies not only a general objectivity but invents “facts” in order to further rile the already riled. Dr. Goebbels could’t have done it better and this then is the atmosphere in which this assassin struck.

    Not that Palin etc. are responsible for pulling the trigger but the process of demonising and de-humanising leads inevitably to triggers being pulled. This is what they called for and whether or not this nutcase followed them directly, is unlikely but also irrelevant. Just as unlikely as his having really read Mein Kampf and Das Kapital.

  • Ben G

    Too many nutters, too many guns.

    Go figure…

  • Michael sweeney

    ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’

    I thought Obama was going to lift America out of the Vietnam inspired culture wars of the 60s and 70s, but no. It’s gets worse. More proof of the lie that is the liberal self-belief of being ‘nicer’ people than conservatives.

  • Derek Pasquill

    Just read today’s Guardian leader – Wild West Politics – to see how the liberal-left scumbags and sickos are twisting this tragedy to suit their own perverted agenda.

  • TomTOm

    “but what’s happened?”

    A pot-head used a gun. Obviously had he been smoking legal pot and using an illegal gun shouting “Allahu Akbar” we would have had much more understanding of his “alienation” and how far “society had failed him”

  • Baron

    close to spot on, Alex, what surprises is indeed that more of this doesn’t happen more often; the rush of the pseudo-liberal fruitcakes to blame Palin, the right, gun ownership follows the standard pattern, too. In a society in peace with itself, the shooting would warrant few column inches in the dailies at the most, more in the specialised medical journals, perhaps.

    politicians everywhere are held mostly in contempt whilst in office; how come their death, violent death in particular, never fails to elevate them to sainthood and above.

  • Archibald

    Meant to add – good job Alex, nice wee round up. Happy New Year.

  • Archibald

    Something is rotten in the state of Arizona. And in the United States. Such a terrible shame, as despite its many flaws, I love it, but what’s happened?

  • ceebs

    It is noticeable however that Mrs Palin appears to have immediately acted to remove several online details which could be said to imply a link between herself and the atmosphere which caused the event. for example a tweet saying don’t retreat… reload.

  • jan

    15000 jihadi attacks since 9/11 but the media can see no pattern! One loner goes nuts with a gun in Tuscon,…Ah! A right wing conspiracy and a chance to pass harsh new laws curbing free speech.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    And again, in Sullivan’s blog, we see the immediate link to the right wing, which we contrat in our memories with the Fort Worth shooting, where the Islamic dimension was suppressed by the media, ditto the Times Square bombing. The right-wing however immediately got the blame for the census guy in..I don’t remember where..who turned out to be a suicide.

    Alex, you seem to have a more reasonable take on it. Random nutjob, happens everywhere. But this ought to be everybody’s first reaction, although I must admit I do not follow that principle where there are Islamic links.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Pot head one day, paranoid schizo the next. No connection.

  • wbensonhuber

    This is mindless drivel until you say that it doesn’t look at this point as if the shooter was influenced by Sarah Palin or the Tea Party. Then it manages to be offensive and misinformed. Questioning a failed socialist agenda doesn’t promote random killings, nor global warming, not even childhood obesity. Admittedly Sarah and the Tea Party have caused hysteria and cases of rampant bedwetting amongst the commentariat in the US . But you
    needn’t worry about that. Just write about something you know– like maybe sheet laundering. If that gets tedious teach typing.

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