The recent assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) is all the proof you need that America’s political climate is out of control. On January 8, Jared Lee Loughner unloaded his semiautomatic weapon into a crowd during an event the congresswoman was holding in her district. The shooting left 13 people including Giffords injured and six dead, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Rep. Giffords, who was Loughner’s target, was shot in the head at point blank range. Loughner’s YouTube rants resemble the anti-government, militaristic rhetoric of the Tea Party. Further, according to the Department of Homeland Security, Loughner has possible ties to an anti-Semitic, anti-immigration hate group called American Renaissance. Giffords is Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman.
This was not the act of a lone crazy gunman, as some might suggest. And it is impossible to leave politics out of this incident, as some on the right would like us to do. This was a politically-motivated shooting in a politically-charged climate. Nor can we say after this incident that there are just as many nuts on the right and the left, and that today’s political climate is no different than when President Bush was in office. Most of the politically-motivated violence these days is coming from the right, and the heated rhetoric coming from conservative politicians and talk show hosts has created a climate resulting in acts of violence. For months, civil rights groups, members of the black community, this commentator and others have been warning about the dangerous rhetoric coming from Sarah Palin, the Tea Party and others. Unfortunately, shocking as this shooting was, the only surprise for some is that such an incident hadn’t happened sooner.
WATCH NBC NEWS COVERAGE OF THE CRITICISM OF PALIN:
“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik about Arizona. “It’s time to do a little soul searching about the rhetoric we hear on the radio, how our children are being raised,” he added.
Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), who is Assistant Democratic Leader in the House and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, noted that the tragic shooting occurred just a week before Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday. “I think the sheriff out there in Tucson — I think he’s got it right. Words do have consequences, and I think that — this is nothing new, I’ve been saying this for a long time now,” Clyburn added. “We’re getting ready to celebrate, this weekend, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., who admonished us that we are going to regret in this generation not just the vitriolic words and deeds of bad people, but the appalling silence of good people.”
Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement, also suggested that the vitriol has become so elevated that it has emboldened some people to commit acts of violence. “And people, who are a little less than stable, and people aren’t thinking for themselves or are so easily influenced, they got out and do things that all of us pay a great price for,” he said. The congressman cited the controversial statements of Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who called for “Second Amendment remedies.”
In 2009 the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on the alarming rise of right wing groups called “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” According to the report, hard economic times and the election of a black president have provided recruitment opportunities for white supremacist and radical right wing groups. As the report warns, “the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn — including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit — could create a fertile recruiting environment for right wing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.”
We’ve been here before. Today is a lot like the 1990s, when recession fears led to paranoia, and conspiracy theories about the end times, martial law and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution. The environment led to the rise of the Patriot movement and the targeting of government buildings and law enforcement, resulting in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil before September 11, 2001, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building claimed 168 lives and left over 800 people injured.
These concerns were echoed in Rage on the Right, a 2010 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to the report, there has been a dramatic increase in extremist Patriot group activity in recent years. Klansmen, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, vigilantes, anti-immigrant groups and others have exploited popular anger with their outrageous anti-government conspiracy theories. What is disturbing is that these hate groups have penetrated the mainstream of conservative politics.
WATCH NBC NIGHTLY NEWS COVERAGE OF THE GIFFORDS SHOOTING:
Politicians such as Rep. Michele Bachmann embrace the anti-government rhetoric of these hate groups by suggesting that Obama is planning re-education camps for young people. And Glenn Beck of FOX News has promoted the conspiracy theory that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is operating secret concentration camps.
The racist rhetoric against Barack Obama was in full view during the 2008 presidential campaign, when angry protesters attended rallies held by John McCain and Sarah Palin, the GOP presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Members of the crowd in in lynch mob fashion yelled “traitor!” “terrorist!” and “kill him!” in reference to then-candidate Obama. The Secret Service blamed Sarah Palin’s attacks on Obama’s patriotism during the 2008 campaign season for the rise in death threats against the Democratic candidate, and a number of assassination plots against him.
During the Bush years in the 2000s, the left’s anger against the former president was considerable. But left wing protesters never called for his death over the Iraq War, nor did they attempt to assassinate him.
When Obama became president, the vitriol from the right continued, particularly during the health care debate and the town hall meeting held across the nation. Some protesters came to Obama rallies with assault weapons. During an Obama health care speech in September 2009, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, shouted “You lie!” Wilson, a Republican, is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which some consider to be a radical white supremacist group. He once voted in favor of flying the confederate flag over South Carolina’s state capitol.
Rep. Giffords was the target of death threats and vandalism after she voted in favor of health care reform. Because of her support for the legislation, Sarah Palin targeted the congresswoman and 19 other lawmakers in the 2010 election with a graphic featuring bullseyes or crosshairs — which are normally associated with gun sights. Warning of the danger caused by that map, Giffords pointed the finger at Palin and the Tea Party. In June 2010, Giffords’ Tea Party opponent Jesse Kelly hosted a campaign event, inviting supporters to “Get on Target for Victory in November,” “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office” and “Shoot a fully automatic M15 with Jesse Kelly.”
Following the Tucson shooting, Palin removed the crosshairs graphic from her website, yet a Palin aide insisted that the crosshairs had nothing to do with guns or violence. Meanwhile, some Tea Party groups are telling Americans not to blame them for the Tucson tragedy. Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation blamed a “leftist lunatic” for the Giffords shooting, and called Sheriff Dupnik a “leftist sheriff.” He elaborated: “The hard left is going to try and silence the Tea Party movement by blaming us for this.” Phillips also claimed Clinton used the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to “blame conservative talk radio, especially Rush Limbaugh” and “The tactic worked then, backing conservatives off and possibly helping to ensure a second Clinton term.”
The Tea Party Express said their group was “shocked and saddened” by the “terrible tragedy,” adding that “These heinous crimes have no place in America, and they are especially grievous when committed against our elected officials. Spirited debate is desirable in our country, but it only should be the clash of ideas.”
African-Americans know far too well about the assassination of political leaders, which is why voices in the black community warned that Sarah Palin and others were inciting violence with their harmful statements. Leaders such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were assassinated in a climate in which some individuals took matters into their own hands, and rhetoric escalated into murder.
America needs a national chilling out period, right now. We must learn to debate the issues without stirring up the worst passions in people. In the meantime, irresponsible politicians and trash-talking talk show hosts have been given notice. And certainly, those who helped start this fire must wonder if they are facing arson charges.