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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011


Words and Weapons

Lighting the fuse for the tragedy in Tucson.

Last year, while anti-government protesters marched on Washington, we overheard a man in the Silver City Wal-Mart grumble, "I hope they take out the whole Congress."

Last month, we happened to be in Tucson, only a few stoplights away from where one deranged gunman tried to start doing just that. He critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six bystanders, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

Tucson gunman Jared Loughner's politics are as scrambled as his mental state, although his rantings included such familiar hard-right themes as the debasement of the US currency and government conspiracies. Nor is there any simple straight line between our angry Wal-Mart shopper and the shooting spree at a Tucson Safeway supermarket.

But when anti-government activists and the craven politicians seeking to capitalize on their anger resort to violent rhetoric and spout about "tyranny" and "socialism," they need to realize that not everyone understands they are speaking metaphorically. When Sarah Palin tells audiences "don't retreat, reload," some folks really might reach for their guns. Consider:

  • Palin's website featured a map with crosshairs indicating members — including Giffords — who should be targeted for their support of health-care reform. A caption read, "We've diagnosed the problem. Help us prescribe the solution." At the time, Giffords told MSNBC, "We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that." The crosshair graphic was hurriedly taken offline after Giffords was shot in the head.

  • Giffords' district-office door was smashed, possibly by gunfire, after her health-care vote. At an earlier "Congress on Your Corner" meeting at a Safeway in her district, a protester waving a sign that said "Don't Tread on Me" had the pistol he was carrying drop out of the holster under his armpit.

  • Jesse Kelly, Giffords' opponent during the 2010 campaign (whom she narrowly defeated only weeks before Loughner bought the gun used in the Safeway shootings), rallied supporters by urging them to join him in firing M-16 rifles.

  • Campaigning against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sharon Angle suggested that if Congress didn't become more responsive to the will of the people, the public might have to resort to "Second Amendment remedies."

  • Last spring, US Capitol security officials reported that threats against members of Congress had tripled from the previous year, almost all from opponents of health-care reform.

  • In Washington State, federal officials recently convicted a 64-year-old man for threats against the life of Sen. Patty Murray. The threats, inspired by Murray's support for health-care reform, used some phrases word-for-word from the Fox News fulminations of Glenn Beck.

The list goes on. Since the 2008 election, we've seen a neo-Nazi Obama-hater in Pittsburgh kill three police officers, a tax protester fly a plane into an IRS building in Texas, and a police shootout with a man plotting to attack a liberal group vilified by Beck.

None of this "caused" Loughner to focus homicidal rage on an Arizona congresswoman. But it's hard to believe he was oblivious to the drumbeat of violence and calls to armed insurrection. Honestly, if you didn't see first-hand the vituperative campaigning in Tucson — as we experienced during several visits last year — you can't truly understand the background against which last month's tragedy took place.

As the New York Times noted in an exhaustive report on Loughner's path to murder, "He became an echo chamber for stray ideas, amplifying, for example, certain grandiose tenets of extremist right-wing groups." Times columnist Frank Rich elaborated: "That Loughner was likely insane, with no coherent ideological agenda, does not mean that a climate of antigovernment hysteria has no effect on him or other crazed loners out there."

At an emotional news conference in the wake of the Tucson shooting rampage, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik put it still more bluntly: "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 prejuduce and bigotry."

The next day, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, commented, "The ubiquitous nature of the Internet means that not only threats but also hate speech and other inciteful speech is much more readily available to individuals than quite clearly it was 8 or 10 or 15 years ago. That absolutely presents a challenge for us, particularly when it results in what would be lone wolves or lone offenders undertaking attacks."


We heard much high-minded tut-tutting about resorting to violence as the Tucson shootings reverberated through the nation. In Tucson, the news was full of prayer vigils, and politicians of every stripe urged calm and petitions to the Almighty for the victims.

Frankly, that's not enough. As columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote after the Giffords shooting, "Liberals were rightly pressed in the 1960s to condemn violence on the left. Now, conservative leaders must take on their fringe when it uses language that intimates threats of bloodshed. That means more than just highly general statements praising civility."

If you're shaken by the shootings in Tucson, you can do something about the tenor of our times that contributed to this tragedy — beyond a mere moment of silence. You can change the channel on extremist hatemongers of every stripe. Stop buying their books and their crazy lies. Vow to tamp down your own rhetoric and to get the facts before you speak. Agree to disagree while recognizing that those on the other side also want what's best for the country.

Stop letting politicians play on your fears. "You basically have members [of Congress] who are free agents and are going to cater to the lowest common denominator," said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, after the shootings. "I think the leadership in Congress will try to keep it at a civil level, but the talk shows thrive on this stuff. People get elected on this stuff."


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