On Saturday morning, Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was holding a meet-and-greet at a Tucson Safeway when 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot her in the head, point blank. He then allegedly turned his fire on others; at least five people were killed, including federal judge John Roll. Roll had previously received death threats for his involvement in immigration cases, but he had been at the event unexpectedly; Giffords is thought to have been the main target. Miraculously, she survived, though as of this writing she remains in critical condition. We don’t yet know what her would-be assassin was thinking. But we do know that Giffords, the first Jewish woman that Arizona sent to Congress, has been the target of a long campaign of right-wing incitement. And Loughner, while clearly in the grip of delusion rather than any coherent ideology, nonetheless shared many far-right obsessions.
Loughner had a YouTube channel and a MySpace page, and both suggest someone deeply unbalanced. His videos, which mostly feature white text on a black background accompanied by trippy electronic music, are full of unintelligible messages about conscious dreaming and English grammar. But they also make it clear that Loughner has internalized some of the conspiracy theories common in the Tea Party. He is obsessed with currency manipulation and out-of-control government power. Toward the end of a YouTube video titled “My Final Thoughts,” he writes, “The majority of citizens in the United States of America have never read the United States of America’s Constitution. You don’t have to accept the federalist laws. Nonetheless, read the United States of America’s Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws.” Among his MySpace photos is an American history book with a gun on top.
Perhaps equally significant, he lists Mein Kampf among his favorite books—although he cites The Communist Manifesto as well. Giffords was vocal about her Judaism, which she embraced as an adult. (Her father, who is a first cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow’s father, is Jewish, while her mother is a Christian Scientist.) Given Loughner’s fixation on currency and his nod to Hitler, it certainly seems possible that Jew-hatred played a role in his terrible mixed-up fantasy world.
Loughner was probably too insane to have really participated in anti-Semitic politics, or, for that matter, in the Tea Party. But it is important to note that Giffords has been relentlessly demonized by the right, the rhetoric around her charged with violence. And such rhetoric is dangerous precisely because of the effect it can have on the unhinged. Loughner was crazy, but he was also responsive to certain real-world political currents, particularly the right’s nightmare vision of federal power run amok. One can’t completely separate this mad act from earlier threats against Giffords.
In August 2009, during another meet-and-greet at a Safeway, a conservative activist who confronted Giffords dropped a gun, leading worried aides to call the police. As right-wing fury mounted, there were other intimations of violence. In March 2010, hours after Giffords’ vote in favor of health care reform, her Tucson office was vandalized, a door and window either kicked in or shot out. Sarah Palin published a map featuring gun sights on the Congressional districts of 20 Democrats then tweeted it to her followers, saying, “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: Don’t Retreat, Instead—RELOAD.”
“Our office corner has really become an area where the Tea Party movement congregates,” Giffords told MSNBC after the attack on her office. “The rhetoric is incredibly heated. Not just the calls but the emails, the slurs, things have really gotten spun up.” Political leaders, she said, need to realize “that their rhetoric, and firing people up—for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, the way she has it depicted is the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district—when people do that, you’ve got to realize, there are consequences to that action.”
But the rhetoric didn’t cool down. This summer, Giffords’ Tea Party-backed opponent, Jesse Kelly, held a machine gun-themed campaign event. “Get On Target For Victory in November,” said the invitation. “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”
Now Giffords has been shot allegedly by a crazy young man who had imbibed elements of Tea Party conspiracy-ism. We don’t know exactly what the reasons were for the attack. Still, it was precisely what the Tea Party, with all its gun brandishing and talk of armed revolution and “second amendment remedies,” has been hinting at for over a year. If they didn’t mean it, if they’re horrified by the notion that someone might have taken their words seriously, they’ll speak differently in the future. We’ll see.