Manipulating a Massacre
The political attacks on the right that instantly followed the assassination attempt on Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords represented a brazen effort on the part of liberals and the left to discredit, delegitimize, and silence their conservative opposition. For if the rhetoric and ideas of the right did bear even indirect responsibility for the massacre in Tucson, which left six dead and 13 grievously injured, that would mean everyone who argued for them or advocated them or believed in them would have the blood of the innocent on their hands.
Even after it became clear that the perpetrator of the massacre is a paranoid schizophrenic whose thoughts of murdering Giffords apparently began in 2007 after the congresswoman responded with puzzlement to a deranged question he had asked her at a public meeting, liberals continued to argue their case that Jared Lee Loughner was an unconscious right-wing puppet. “The Tucson killings look . . . more like politically tinged schizophrenia,” acknowledged Jacob Weisberg of Slate in the most revealing article to be published in the days following the massacre. But then he went on to say, “[I]t is appropriate, however, to consider what was swirling outside Loughner’s head.” This nominally clever formulation is, at second glance, utter nonsense both morally and logically—for if the ideas were not actually in Loughner’s head, then they could not have motivated him, could they?
Oh, yes, they could, according to Weisberg, because . . . they could. “The Tea Party movement did make it appreciably more likely that a disturbed person like Loughner would react, would be able to react, and would not be prevented from reacting, in the crazy way he did,” he wrote, offering no supporting evidence for the claim. “At the core of the far right’s culpability is its ongoing attack on the legitimacy of U.S. government—a venomous campaign not so different from the backdrop to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Then it was focused on ‘government bureaucrats’ and the ATF. This time it has been more about Obama’s birth certificate and health care reform.”
Note how smoothly Weisberg draws a parallel between Obama-Care opponents—who number, if we extrapolate from polls, more than 100 million—and the paranoid apocalyptics (numbering in the thousands, if that) who believed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was flying invisible helicopters around the United States in 1994 and 1995. Note his implicit likening of the ideas of the Tea Party movement, with its concerns about the size of government, to the ideas expressed in The Turner Diaries, the antinominian pro-terrorist novel that was the “bible” of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Note, too, how Weisberg takes an act of purposeful domestic terrorism against a federal facility carried out by a two-man conspiracy of political extremists and analogizes it to a lone madman spraying bullets into a crowd at a supermarket parking lot on a Saturday morning.
The 1995 bombing and the 2011 massacre are only like each other in that they both involved violence aimed at a political target. But the rhetoric swirling inside Weisberg’s head tells him that what they share is “the dangerous idea that the federal government lacks valid authority. It is this, rather than violent rhetoric per se, that is the most dangerous aspect of right-wing extremism.” McVeigh certainly did believe the federal government lacked valid authority. Jared Loughner wrote on a UFO conspiracy website that the calendar was being manipulated by space aliens. He did not believe this because he had somehow been drenched in the “anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism that flourishes in the dry and angry climate of Arizona,” as Weisberg so charmingly describes one of the nation’s more politically heterodox states. He believed this because, by all accounts, he has a literally diseased brain.
What is important about Weisberg’s piece is that it was published four days after the massacre. Such a snap view might have been intellectually or morally excusable in the minutes and hours immediately following, when we really knew nothing. (Excusable, I said—not defensible.) But in the sped-up time of the Internet—brilliantly dissected by Andrew Ferguson in his back-page Press Man column this month—five days is what five months might have been 30 years ago. It was already time for the rueful acknowledgment that there had been an unseemly rush to judgment.
Some began advancing the idea that this was a “teachable moment” about the dangers of violent rhetoric. Ah, the teachable moment. That is the schoolmarmish way of announcing the onset of a public re-education campaign designed to impose the American liberal sensibility on everyone who has not yet breathed it in. When you have a teachable moment, it doesn’t matter whether the motivator was true or false—whether, in other words, violent rhetoric had anything to do with what happened.
Weisberg didn’t go in for the teachable-moment thing. Instead, he aired out a “no, but” argument that I expect will become axiomatic for liberals going forward—one that seems at first to acknowledge the truth before drowning out the truth with ideological, emotional, and rhetorical slander.
No, Loughner was not a Tea Partier, but (according to this view) he might as well have been. Tea Partiers dislike Washington and Democrats, and Gabrielle Giffords is a Democratic politician in Washington. And no, he was not a conservative, but conservatives tend to support the idea that the Second Amendment grants Americans the right to own guns, and he was able to buy a gun. Moreover, Republicans and conservatives like Sarah Palin often use “violent rhetoric” when discussing the defeat of their ideological adversaries at the ballot box—terms like “lock and load” and “reload”—which served as the amniotic fluid in which his crime gestated.
Thus, the attempted assassination of Giffords is to be taken as the deepest, darkest expression of the Tea Party—and not only the Tea Party, but the conservative movement in its populist form as well. For if even your rhetoric is murderous, what does that say about the policies the rhetoric is intended to serve? Dare to use the word “socialist” to describe Obama’s worldview, as George Packer basically said in the New Yorker, and you have blood on your hands. How much more blood will you have on your hands if you try to reverse those policies?
Not everything is the same as everything else. Believing Obama was born in Kenya is not the same as thinking his health-care policies will harm the United States. A Sarah Palin website with a target drawn on Gabrielle Giffords’s district is not the same as Jared Loughner’s gun sight trained on Gabrielle Giffords. Saying “lock and load” is not the same as locking and loading. And locking and loading when you are hunting deer is not the same as locking and loading when you are killing a child born on 9/11, a federal judge, a pastor, and two septuagenarian retirees and a congressional staffer. Shooting people in a parking lot is not the same as blowing up a federal building, even if the primary target was a member of Congress.
Arguing that these very different things are the same does rhetorical violence of its own—violence not only to elementary logic but also to elementary decency. Ultimately, such arguments say more about the people who advance them than about the people whom they are intended to silence. And what they say is very, very ugly indeed.