"Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly." -- campaign website, Jesse Kelly for U.S. Congress, 8th District of Arizona, June 2010.
Mr. Kelly, a Republican who lost to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) last November, didn't use a gun to remove Ms. Giffords from office. But someone else did this past Saturday.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've by now heard that over the weekend in Tuscon, a deranged 23 year-old man wreaked havoc at an Arizona town hall held by Rep. Giffords at a local Safeway.
This was not a Tea Party town hall disruption circa 2009; instead, college dropout Jared Lee Loughner drew a 9mm Glock pistol and shot Rep. Giffords in the head at point-blank range. Miraculously, she is still alive. Unfortunately, a federal judge, John M. Roll, was not so lucky. Judge Roll, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, had dropped by the town hall to say hello to his friend from across the political aisle. It cost him his life.
An interest in politics was fatal to others on the scene: Gabriel Zimmerman, an aide to Rep. Giffords, was also killed, along with a nine year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green. Christina-Taylor, ironically born on September 11, 2001, was herself a budding young politician. She had just been elected to the student council at her elementary school, and was eager to meet a role model, Rep. Giffords.
Ms. Giffords, one of the youngest female members of Congress, was by all accounts a gracious and courageous woman who loved meeting with her constituents -- despite receiving death threats because of her support for health care reform. As noted above, Giffords' 2010 opponent, Republican Jesse Kelly, advertised his June campaign event on Facebook: "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."(Judge Roll had similarly received death threats, when he allowed a $32 million lawsuit brought by immigrants to proceed in his court.)
When the dust settled at the Safeway on Saturday, six people had been killed, and twenty wounded. It was a savagely effective display of the "Second Amendment remedies" infamously suggested by Nevada Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, as a cure for members of Congress who dared ignore the demands of her flock of right-wing crazies. Indeed, Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin even included Rep. Giffords in her list of "targeted" members of Congress, when she urged her followers "Don't retreat -- reload!" – which will likely go down as one of the most unfortunate tweets in the short history of the new medium. A political map (now removed from Palin's website) that accompanied Palin's inflammatory tweet even helpfully included crosshairs over each offending congressional district, in case anyone missed the gun allusions. In a pathetic, desperate back-pedal on Jan. 9, Palin aide Rebecca Mansour defended the cross-hairs over Rep. Gifford's district as merely a "surveyor's symbol." I'm sure this semantic difference is comforting to the families of the dead.
But Ms. Mansour, ironically, is partially correct. Ultimately, surveyors of American history will indeed remember this horrific assassination as a symbol -- of sanity restored. January 8, 2011 will be remembered as the day a nation stuck in a nightmare of hateful, violent, right-wing rhetoric was shocked awake, by an ugly reminder about the power of language. Words not only have the power to inspire a people to heed the better angels of our nature, but they also have the power to transform ideological frustrations into murder. Take one part troubled youth, add a dash of mental illness, shake vigorously, and throw in a match of irresponsible Tea Party calls-to-action, and boom – you've killed off three generations of public service in a day.
Now among the dead are a Republican, a Democrat, and a child likely too young to be imprisoned by the shackles of ideology. Many of the other casualties are abstract, but equally human and important – the spirit of public service; the notion that there should be a robust, even loud debate among us, but that we do not solve our differences through violence. And who the hell is going to be the next person brave enough to shake hands with constituents at a grocery store?
As for the assassin, Mr. Loughner, he does not appear to have been a Tea Partier. Nor was he an apolitical cherub. He left a trail of clues in a series of chilling YouTube videos that suggest he is a frustrated, paranoid schizophrenic with an anti-government ideology. His online rants question the semantics of terrorism and criticize the United States for abandoning the gold standard. He tried to enlist in the Army in 2008, but was failed a drug screening. Federal investigators now know he specifically targeted Rep. Giffords and pre-planned her killing; he was not like the Columbine shooters, whose rage seemed to be generally and widely targeted at their high school classmates. Though the murders will be remembered as assassinations, the political element of that word really misses the point.
Mr. Loughner probably killed Rep. Giffords less for politics and more because he is clearly mentally ill. But this does not absolve the political chattering class of responsibility for these repugnant murders. Right-wing rabble-rousers such as Rush Limbaugh, Palin, Angle, and Glenn Beck have long relied on a talent for dog-whistle communication that somehow activates the worst instincts in human beings – the fear of other people simply because they are different than us; the fight-or-flight instinct that shoots before it listens and kills instead of talks; the corrosive, perverse passions that in the name of liberty deliver our freedoms to tyrants.
The mentally disturbed, the underprivileged, the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed – all of these persons are particularly vulnerable during this dark season in our country's lifespan. Whatever Mr. Loughner's politics, he was vulnerable to a message that government is the enemy. The country is in turmoil; unemployment is terrifying; demographics are changing and the white majority will not be so for much longer. People are frightened. To incite the resentments and anguish of these souls, as so many feckless political vaudeville acts have done for their own profit and fame, is beyond the pale.
For their own selfish ends, these Second Amendment fetishists sent out a message across the land – "It's okay to kill members of your government if you get frustrated" – which is only an operative statement in moments of utter last resort, e.g. our own battle for independence. Their cheapening of language in this way, and the lowering of the threshold for violence, is more of an affront and a threat to our society than health care reform or gays in the military could ever be. Sadly, those who are most open to these messages of hate are those whose interests the messengers care the least about. When people get paid millions of dollars a year to take to the airwaves and convince you that President Obama is a greater threat to your family than banks run amuck, or than lack of access to education and health care, they are not on your side -- nor are they on the county's side.
Citizens should only take up arms against their government in the rarest of times. It is not inconceivable that tyrants will one day destroy and pervert the DNA of our nation's principles, and require that we rise up and do as we did to the royal despots of the British crown. In the meantime, constantly equating our political adversaries with these despots, or monsters such as Hitler, is destructive because it furthers us from an understanding that violence must be a point of last resort for a free society in which the expression of our passions is encouraged, and our disagreements rage until exhaustion. Instead, the extreme political elements in our society have been increasingly and loudly suggesting it is okay to kill those with whom we disagree. Our society is better, and deserves better.
Some of the greatest affronts to our nation's rule of law have been resolved peaceably. Bush v. Gore was a constitutional rape that makes even the bad elements of health care reform seem at worst an unwelcome advance in terms of constitutional dignity. Yet after the Supreme Court effectively handed Bush the presidency in December 2000, Vice President Gore did not call his followers to arms. He conceded, and while most countries would have erupted into civil war immediately, no tanks rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue. History will make its own judgment as to whether Bush's presidency was better for the country than Gore's would have been, but one thing is clear – America resolved a bitter contest in a peaceable manner.
Current-day hate speech from the peanut gallery would have suggested we execute Second Amendment remedies against the Supreme Court justices in 2000. Now, eleven years later, the right-wing echo-chamber should take heed. When you yell "Fire!" in a crowded political theater, sometimes people oblige. Just ask John Wilkes Booth, and Jared Lee Loughner.