Gabrielle Giffords and Domestic Terror

It won’t take long for reporters to find out enough about Jared Loughner to offer portrayals of a severely disturbed young man.  Reports at this moment detail Loughner attending a district event at a supermarket organized by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was just re-elected to Congress.  Loughner rushed Giffords, shot her in the head with a pistol, then continued firing, killing or injuring 17 others, including Federal Judge John Roll, and Giffords’s staffers.

There are never more than a few Americans who will take up arms against elected officials, when they can vote, campaign, blog, and spew vitriol far more easily and with far less risk.  But social movements, as we’ve discussed, always have crazies around the periphery of the crowds they draw, and activists and political leaders need to take some responsibility for the tone and content of their rhetoric.

When organizers try to mobilize people–to vote, attend a rally, contribute money, go to a meeting–they tend to overemphasize the importance of the moment, the gravity of a threat and the promise of change.  Antinuclear activists talk about the fate of the earth, while anti-abortion crusaders can easily start talking about murderers with medical licenses.  Most people who participate in these events understand the element of theater at work here, even if they take offense at it.  But such words carry far further than speakers may anticipate.

And if the operation of a death factory or the march toward communism is nearby, it’s a little easier to understand how someone at the edge of the crowd might start to see a rally or an electoral campaign as a fairly tepid response.

Gabrielle Giffords is a moderate Democrat who has represented a swing district in Arizona since 2006, when she won an election to replace a moderate (and openly gay) Republican, Jim Kolbe.  She described herself as a supporter of gun rights, but was not vigorous enough to overcome the animus of gun rights groups like the NRA.  She supported comprehensive immigration reform (not just enforcement) and health care reform, and some of those who disagreed with her labeled her positions as threats to the existential survival of the United States.

Movements have to deal with the fallout from the lunatics they inspire.  In 1983, Norman Mayer drove a van he said was filled with explosives to the Washington Monument, demanding a national dialogue on the nuclear threat.  Repeatedly, opponents of legal abortion have had to find ways to distance themselves from those they somehow inspire to bomb clinics or murder doctors.

Rep. Giffords had been threatened with violence before: an armed man was arrested at one of her rallies in 2009, and her district office was vandalized during the health care debate, her glass front door shattered.  (She was one of several Democrats who faced threats and vandalism during the debate; Eric Cantor, now Majority Leader in the House, criticized them for making too much of a fuss about it.)

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin marked Giffords’s district as a prime target for Republican gains, marking it with crosshairs on her own electoral map (on the left).  Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle suggested that activists might have to consider “second amendment remedies” to the threat represented by President Obama.  And it gets worse: scan the comments on any news website and you’ll see warnings about communism, the Muslim president born in Kenya, and various threats represented by immigrants and their advocates.

In the immediate wake of this shooting, politicians on the left and right have been quick to stand with Rep. Giffords and her family, condemning violence.

Somewhere down the line, however, someone with some kind of Tea Party claim will qualify that condemnation, noting the frustration felt by opponents of health care or immigration reform.  The test will be how Tea Party and Republican leaders deal with these putative allies.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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