Leaders of several Tea Party groups have desperately taken to the news media to absolve themselves of any blame for the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which killed 6 people and injured a total of 14. Media outlets continue to repeat the news that the shooter, Jared Loughner, was not a member of any Tea Party groups, as if the Tea Partiers’ self-reported discovery can somehow remove the stain that their nasty, violence-themed rhetoric has imposed on America.
In truth, Mr. Loughner’s affiliations are only marginally germane to the very important national discussion about why this violent tragedy could take place in America and how to ensure that such madness will never happen again. Whether or not the 22-year-old Mr. Loughner was a registered member of any organized Tea Party groups, his wildly paranoid, anti-government views align him very closely with Tea Party ideology and with the long, grim history of violent right-wing extremists in America.
Prior to being shot in the face, Representative Giffords was subject to threats, vandalism of her district office, and intimidating Tea Party protests. Her Tea Party opponent in the fall election, Jesse Kelly, even held a political rally/gun firing event intended as a direct challenge to the congresswoman. The event, called “Get on Target for Victory in November” urged gun-loving Tea Partiers and Republicans to “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office” by “Shoot[ing] a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.” The horrifying and quite obvious link between firing automatic assault weapons and removing Representative Giffords is apparently only inscrutable to certain conservative leaders.
After the shooting, Judson Phillips, the unstable and opportunistic leader of a major for-profit Tea Party network, refused to back down from his group’s violent and divisive invective, instead using the violence as a rallying cry and a reason to smear “leftist lunatics” such as Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. Other Tea Party leaders have shifted blame by downplaying their previous rhetoric and desperately emphasizing the very clear likelihood that Mr. Loughner was mentally ill. Nevertheless, the cool-headed Sheriff Dupnik had it exactly correct when he stated the obvious:
“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…. 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 and the right have also made much about the scattered list of Mr. Loughner’s favorite books found on his Myspace profile, suggesting that his mention of The Communist Manifesto must be clear proof of liberal leanings and a good enough reason to shift the blame. But it has not been widely noted that Mr. Loughner’s book list appears to in reality include the only books he’s actually read – the list reads like a college first-year’s syllabus and includes such harmless works as Aesop’s Fables and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as well as right-wing tomes such as Ayn Rand’s libertarian We the Living and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Moreover, Mr. Loughner’s incoherent political ramblings, especially his apparent desire to return to the gold standard and his hostility to non-English speakers, point to undeniably right-wing and Ron Paul-style libertarian philosophies. Ultimately, though, his political leanings and group memberships are mostly unimportant for a country dealing with this tragedy. The crucial point is that the violent rhetoric drummed up largely by Republicans and the Tea Party, and condemned by few on the right, have clearly created a political climate in which the mentally ill are encouraged to act as they see fit and the worst is now possible.