As you’ve probably heard by now, Jared Lee Loughner is accused of a horrific attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ.) and the murder of six other people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old little girl. Loughner also injured 14 other people. Remarkably, Giffords survived – in no small measure due to the heroic actions of a gay, Latino intern who rushed to administer first aid - and doctors are cautiously optimistic that she will recover. While the facts in this terrible case are still unfolding, the initial indications are that the shooting points to some profound connections between white power, terrorism and the mainstream political culture of the U.S.
Hate group monitors, including Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates and Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), have noted the ties Loughner had to white power groups through his posting to various web sites and his YouTube channel. Elise Foley, reporting at the Huffington Post, suggests that Loughner had ties to the American Renaissance, a white nationalist group that operates under a pseudo think tank called the New Century Foundation. Among a number of notions it holds rooted in white supremacy, the American Renaissance is also opposed to the entry of “non-whites” into the United States and supports Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law. The group is known for its anti-semitism and a number of media outlets have pointed to the fact that Hitler’s Mein Kampf was listed as one of Loughner’s favorite books, leading to questions about whether anti-semitism and anti-immigrant hostility were motives in the shootings. Giffords is the first Jewish U.S. representative to be elected in Arizona (and an opponent of SB 1070) and Gabe Zimmerman, a Giffords aide who was killed in the shooting, was also Jewish. Potok is more circumspect when he observes:
I didn’t see anything that suggested racial, anti-Semitic or anti-immigrant animus in Loughner’s writings. Certainly, there’s nothing I saw at all reminiscent of American Renaissance, which focuses heavily on the alleged intellectual and psychological inferiority of black people. At this early stage, I think Loughner is probably best described as a mentally ill or unstable person who was influenced by the rhetoric and demonizing propaganda around him. Ideology may not explain why he allegedly killed, but it could help explain how he selected his target.
One thing that seems clear is that Giffords … was the nearest and most obvious representative of “the government” that Loughner could find. Another is that he likely absorbed some of his anger from the vitriolic political atmosphere in the United States in general and Arizona in particular.
I tend to agree with Potok here. I doubt that any official ties between Loughner and white supremacist (or nationalist) groups will be unearthed. But, even though he Loughner isn’t much of a “joiner” doesn’t mean he’s not a political terrorist – he is. He even calls himself a terrorist. And, that’s what he is. The only problem is that he’s white, so lots of people are going to have trouble recognizing him as a terrorist.
Academic blogger Juan Cole (h/t @tandmark) makes this point:
“[He] was clearly mentally unstable. But the political themes of his instability were those of the American far Right. Loughner was acting politically even if he is not all there. He is said to have called out the names of his victims, such as Roll and Gifford, as he fired. As usual, when white people do these things, the mass media doesn’t call it terrorism.“
While lots of liberal bloggers have picked up this white-terrorism meme, there is almost nothing in the mainstream media about the whiteness of this suspect. The white mainstream is already framing this shooting as the act of a crazed, lone gunman, rather than part of a consistent pattern of right-wing violence perpetrated almost exclusively by white men who are responding to a political climate that is increasingly stoked by vitriolic rhetoric.
Sarah Palin has been a chief instigator, although certainly not alone, in generating this deadly rhetoric. Palin bears a special responsibility for the shooting given her frequent, and reckless, use of the gun metaphors such as her Twitter update: “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” (Indeed, Palin’s rhetoric was so inflammatory during the presidential election that the Secret Service blamed her remarks about Obama for increasing the number of death threats against him.) Giffords was well aware of the threat posed by Palin campaign rhetoric like this map with cross hairs mimicking a gun scope on 20 Democratic districts, including Giffords’ own:
After the shooting, Palin’s political action group tried to scrub the Internet of traces of the map, but to no avail. Lots of evidence of Palin’s vitriol still exists on the web, including an interview Giffords did last spring directly addressing the poster. Speaking to MSNBC reporter Chuck Todd after her office was vandalized in March of this year, Giffords tells Todd:
GIFFORDS: Community leaders, figures in our community need to say “look, we can’t stand for this.” This is a situation where — people don’t — they really need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and, you know, even things, for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.
TODD: But in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years. And so that’s — is there not, is there a line here? I understand that in the moment it may look bad, but do you really think that’s what she intended?
GIFFORDS: You know, I can’t say, I’m not Sarah Palin. But I can say that in the years that some of my colleagues have served — 20, 30 years — they’ve never seen it like this.
Todd dismisses Giffords concerns here, and I have to wonder if part of the dismissal has to do with the fact that Sarah Palin is a white woman, and thus, somehow less threatening. What’s relevant here for my point is that Chuck Todd is part of the white mainstream that initially dismissed this violent political rhetoric as worthy of concern, and will continue in his role on MSNBC to be one of the framers of this event as the act of a “lone gunman” who is “mentally unbalanced.” These are partial truths.
What Todd and others like him in the white mainstream do when they repeat these partial truths over and over again, is that they hide from view the larger truth about the way whiteness and white supremacy are implicated in this violent political era.