There’s something offensive, as well as pointless, about the politically charged inquiry into what might have been swirling inside the head of Jared Loughner. We hear that the accused shooter read The Communist Manifesto and liked flag-burning videos— good news for the right. Wait—he was a devotee of Ayn Rand and favored the gold standard, so he was a right-winger after all. Some assassinations embody an ideology, however twisted. Based on what we know so far, the Tucson killings look like more like politically tinged schizophrenia.
It is appropriate, however, to consider what was swirling outside Loughner’s head. To call his crime an attempted assassination is to acknowledge that it appears to have had a political and not merely a personal context. That context wasn’t Islamic radicalism, Puerto Rican independence, or anarcho-syndicalism. It was the anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism that flourishes in the dry and angry climate of Arizona. Extremist shouters didn’t program Loughner, in some mechanistic way, to shoot Gabrielle Giffords. But 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.
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. In either case, it expresses 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.
Often the two issues are blurred together, because if government is illegitimate, rebellion is an appropriate response (hence the Colonial costumes). Conservative entertainers like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin like to titillate their audiences with hints of justified violence, including frequent reminders that they are armed and dangerous. Palin went so far as to put a target on someone who subsequently got shot. Whether or not the man who fired the gun was inspired by Palin isn’t the point. The point is that you shouldn’t paint targets on people, even in metaphor, or jest.
Guns are also at the heart of how the right’s ideology enabled Loughner. Tea Partiers often frame the right to bear arms as a necessary check on federal despotism. “You know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies,” said Sharron Angle of Nevada, who nearly defeated the majority leader of the U.S. Senate in neighboring Nevada. In practical terms, easy access to firearms empowers extremists and crazies to challenge government authority at whim. The National Rifle Association position that any attempt to regulate the ownership of firearms is a violation of the Constitution has prevailed both politically and through the courts. That means that there are few things simpler than for someone to walk into a sporting goods store, as Loughner apparently did, buy a dangerous weapon, and carry it concealed to political meetings. How should politicians protect themselves from nuts with guns? By arming themselves, of course. Absent permissive firearm laws, nowhere more lax than in Arizona, Loughner might still have been able to get a gun. But he couldn’t have done it quite so easily.
First you rile up psychotics with inflammatory language about tyranny, betrayal, and taking back the country. Then you make easy for them to get guns. But if you really want trouble, you should also make it hard for them to get treatment for mental illness. I don’t know if Loughner had health insurance, but he falls into a pool of people who often go uninsured—not young enough to be covered by parents (until the health-care bill’s coverage of twentysomethings kicked in a few months ago), not old enough for Medicare, not poor enough for Medicaid. If such a person happens to have a history of mental illness, he will be effectively uninsurable. To get treatment, he actually has to commit a crime. If Republicans succeed in repealing the Obama health care bill, that’s how it will remain.
Again, none of this says that Tea Party caused the Tucson tragedy, only that its politics increased the odds of something like it happening. It was in criticizing writers on his own side for their naivete about communism that George Orwell wrote, “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” Today it is the right that amuses itself with violent chat and proclaims an injured innocence when its flammable words blow up.
Video: Mark Schmitt and Dan Foster Discuss What Motivated Jared Loughner