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Reason and Madness in Tucson

January 11, 2011

To be clear, if you’re using this event to criticize the “rhetoric” of Mrs. Palin or others with whom you disagree, then you’re either: (a) asserting a connection between the “rhetoric” and the shooting, which based on evidence to date would be what we call a vicious lie; or (b) you’re not, in which case you’re just seizing on a tragedy to try to score unrelated political points, which is contemptible. Which is it?

Glenn Reynolds, in The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2011


The following essay is an attempt to formulate an answer C.



It was depressing enough, during the 2010 Congressional campaign, to hear Rand Paul on the 1964 Civil Rights act; or Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell on virtually anything. But it wasn’t until I saw the below advertisement that I got legitimately scared:

“My God,” I thought immediately, “someone’s going to get shot.”

This isn’t the generic Palin rifle-scope map; it’s an advance upon the basic design – specifically for Jesse Kelly, Giffords’ Republican opponent. It’s pretty clever, for all its insidiousness. As we’d say in the marketing industry, it’s precisely targeted advertising. It is excellently designed to provoke and energize the root emotions of the far-right’s voter base. There’s the American map, swathed deep blue, the Red-Statist’s greatest fear. There’s the cunning appropriation of the health-care debate’s lexicon to insist that America is suffering from a sickness, a disease, which is named Gabrielle Giffords and the Democratic Party. And, last but not least, there are the rifle-scope icons upon Democratic districts. Oh, indeed this advertisement is clever: “Click here for a list of the candidates,” it reads, creating a technological sleight-of-hand to avoid placing photos of Democratic candidates directly within the gun-sights (which would have caused a real ruckus).

In truth, that last overt bit of violence-incitement would have been overkill, anyway. The ad’s rhetoric sounds a hell of a lot like this 1986 action-flick with Sly Stallone:

One of that movie’s favorite lines, by the way, is “This is where the law stops, and I begin.”

As we’re no doubt aware, GOP candidate Jesse Kelly additionally scheduled a charming barnstormer for June 12, 2010: “Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly”. We also can’t neglect Sharron Angle’s astonishing comment, “And you know, I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” Interestingly, the quote is from a January, 2010 radio show – but the report of it, in the Huffington Post, surfaced just four days after Jesse Kelly’s event – and its rhetoric furthers the connection between health-care reform as a disease (!), and removal of politicians as the cure, while explicitly suggesting that if the cure is not obtained by the ballot-box it will be created at gunpoint.

In response to Sharron Angle, Bill Ames, a longtime Republican, NRA member, and president of the Peace Officers Research Association of Nevada, produced this ad in which he says of Angle’s rhetoric, “It’s crazy. But what she’s actually talking about is armed resistance. Look, I’m a member of the NRA and a Republican, but that kind of talk is dangerous and way too extreme.”

And if PORAN sounds like some sort of hippie convention, you’d best take a look at its website. It’s an association of law enforcement officers. That’s also the job description of Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, who, after arriving at a Tucson, AZ Safeway where a U.S. Congresswoman was directly targeted for assassination and shot point-blank in the head, with six others dead and 11 wounded, said:

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” said the sheriff. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry… All I can tell you is that there’s reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think that people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol.


The media response to Tucson has split, predictably, into two camps: a strident condemnation (and calls for reformation) of the violent political rhetoric seen above, due to the horrific ends their logic entails; and accusations that “liberals” are “politicizing” an “agenda” off a tragic event whose culprit, a lone madman, cannot be described as politically motivated (as evidenced from past witnesses to his behavior and his own YouTube clips) because lunacy has no clear politics.

The conservative position may have a point — the topic of political tone is adjacent to, but surely not the direct causative factor in Jared Lee Loughner’s head as he put a bullet through Gabrielle Giffords’ — but with every moment that passes, the conservative position is becoming less relevant. Their arguments are carrying less and less weight.

You have to be slightly amused when Jack Shafer, in, calls efforts to tamp down political speech “awesome stupidity” at precisely the same moment the entirety of the U.S. Congress is pausing to think very seriously about the languages of campaigning and governance; and when, two days later, even the head of FOX News tells his staff to “shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.”

“The call by Sheriff Dupnik and others to take our political conversation down a few notches,” Shafer writes, “might make sense if anybody had been calling for the assassination in the first place, which they hadn’t. And if they had, there are effective laws to prosecute those who move language outside of the metaphorical.” However we have just seen above that, between Kelly and Angle, it is suddenly very ambiguous whether or not they can be seen to be calling for assassinations if the votes don’t go their way. The Tea Party’s political messaging deliberately progressed, over the span of the 2010 campaign season, to emphasize that people with guns are the cure for America’s political illness.

If this isn’t crystal-clear in your mind, I suggest you take a remedial English course and learn a thing or two about metaphor and subtext.

Shafer writes, “Embedded in Sheriff Dupnik’s ad hoc wisdom were several assumptions,” which include “that those voicing strident political views are guilty of issuing Manchurian Candidate-style instructions to commit murder and mayhem to the ‘unbalanced.'” Seriously now: the Chinese brainwashers in that film are masters of subtlety compared to Mr. Jesse Kelly, who gave his supporters the imaginary thrill of murdering a member of Congress with a military-issue rifle. Once again – obviously – there is no current reason to believe Jared Lee Loughner was influenced specifically by Palin crosshair maps or M16 rallies, but it is convincingly reasonable that the Tea Party’s campaign strategy was to stimulate voters’ deepest fears of socialist government, then energize the pleasure centers activated by violence imaginatively directed toward Democratic members of Congress.

Shafer writes, “From what I can tell, I’m not an outlier. Only the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts. Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons infantilizes and neuters us…”

There are two points that need to be made here. The first is that Jared Lee Loughner is no doubt mentally ill – or, to put it better, had become mentally ill over the preceding five years – and that, with his circular logic and probable adoption of David Wynn Miller‘s theories, he occupies a place I’ll call “the lunatic fringe.” It is a place of omnipresent paranoia and ubiquitous, omnipotent government conspiracy. It is precisely the place where the far right has conducted its most vigorous political outreach. Shafer insists that “only the tiniest handful of people…can be driven to kill by political whispers and shouts.” However the political far right in America has been extraordinarily successful in enlarging the pool from which politically-motivated murderers emerge.

“It’s crazy,” said Bill Ames, but an awful lot of people were cheering on that crazy.

Second, no one is asking you to forever hold your tongue, Mr. Shafer, you irresponsible purveyor of melodramatic prose. We are already infantilized by the infantile cries of ignorant pundits, who parrot pollsters so that we may have the childish pleasure of abdicating critical thought. These calls for greater civility – offered across the political spectrum, today – are rather pleas to renounce the bestial, “red in tooth and claw,” and speak like adults for the first time in a generation.


Republican commentators frequently sneer when they hear that (rather excrable) phrase “a teachable moment,” as though they deny the possibility that life teaches us lessons. We have had many such moments in the last decade. We’ve started a war based on lies. There was a hurricane that told us what income disparity really means. There was a financial crash that told us what financial deregulation does. There was an oil spill that taught us about failed government oversight and demonstrated the environmental ruination that comes from an oil-based economy.

Here’s one more.

We know a certain amount about Jared Lee Loughner’s mind and past from his six YouTube posts, a new profile in the New York Times, and this Mother Jones interview with Loughner’s closest friend. We know that he harbored an irrational grudge against Rep. Giffords after a 2007 “Congress on Your Corner” in which Loughner asked her, bizarrely, “What is government if words have no meaning?” and Giffords answered noncommittally, or in Spanish, and moved on. We know that he was barred from re-enrolling at Pima Community College without a psych admit. We know that he wasn’t interested in guns until early 2010. We know that he legally bought a Glock with an extended magazine, which was banned under Clinton-era assault-weapons legislation that expired in 2004.

“What is government if words have no meaning?”

What we don’t know about Jared Lee Loughner is where his mind really went between that moment in 2007 and his Youtube posts in late 2010.

“What is government if words have no meaning?”

In Slate, in The Wall Street Journal, and throughout the airwaves, defenses and prevarications are made. Violent political rhetoric is there, has been there all the time, they profess. There is but an arbitrary connection between a rally to unseat Rep. Giffords and firing off an M16. Oh, you can’t really believe what Sharron Angle was saying with all that 2nd Amendment hoo-ha, right? ‘Cause that’s just crazy.

“What is government if words have no meaning?”

Jared Lee Loughner posted one video relatively few people have seen; it exists “below the fold” on his YouTube channel; you have to click “see all” in order to access it. It’s called “How To: Your New Currency!” It begins in Loughner’s by-now well-known mode of peppy circular syllogisms, initially talking about creating a new coin. Except it isn’t.

Words are mediums of exchange, too. And when Loughner says that, as treasurer, his coin “is starting a new currency system” he is creating a new language, in which words have meaning. Now, there’s a lot of madspeak in the middle of this short video, which is difficult to get into at this time, but he concludes – chillingly –


Who possesses your new coin?

You’re distributing your currency
lethally to people or you’re distributing
your new currency non-lethally to

You’re not distributing your new
currency lethally to people.

Thus, you’re distributing your new
currrency non-lethally to people.


Are you possessing a new currency?


I don’t consider it too outside the realm of possibility to consider the following: that Loughner, mentally ill within a state consumed by political vitriol, yet understands that “targeting,” “taking out,” “removing” political figures (while waving guns and gun imagery about) is still rhetoric. Who is the “you” being addressed here? One interpretation could be that “you” refers to far-right politicians encouraging armed insurrection. They claim Revolutionary fervor but are bankrolled by the wealthy status quo. (I can sense a chiding tone on the line, “You’re not distributing your new currency lethally to people.”) This one of only two times that Loughner ever speaks in any way about killing (“The bodies hit the floor!” being the other). In this interpretation, Loughner is wondering if people are going to put their money where their mouths are. In this interpretation, Loughner has created a new currency, which is assassination.

And you can take him at his word.

This is only one interpretation, and it is entirely possible it’s not the correct one. But as a student of the English language and its uses, I must utterly reject Glenn Reynolds’ contention that I am either a vicious liar or a contemptible opportunist. No. Bill Ames, I, and perhaps you too: we are sensible, we are sane, amid the madness. And our discussion of words and their meanings is directly relevant to the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the mass murder in Tucson on December 8, 2011.

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