Update: Giffords is alive and in surgery; she was shot in the head
Update #2: The shooter is Jared Lee Laughner. After browsing his Youtube channel for a minute, I got the impression that Laughner was extremely mentally unstable, but we still don’t know any firm details about him. There is also evidence that he subscribes to some form of anti-government ideology, and gold vs. federal currency. The key question is how someone like this was able to buy a semi-automatic handgun so easily, and whether anyone should be surprised that Laughner, whoever he turns out to be, killed an elected official amidst the climate of violence that the right has spawned in Arizona and across the country.
Update #3: A friend of Loughner’s named Caitie Parker is saying on her Twitter feed that he used to be a left-wing radical until he became very reclusive and essentially disappeared from society. More evidence that he was a nut, but nothing is confirmed. I am fairly certain this young woman will be all over cable news soon.
During the healthcare debate I began to discuss the specter of right-wing violence against Democratic elected officials and symbols of the federal government — since far-right extremists couldn’t get to Barack Obama himself. I covered right-wing violence in the Obama era in my IFC special on the Tea Party, declaring my opinion in an interview about the special that the Republicans “were trolling for assassins.” And I devoted the postscript in the paperback edition of Republican Gomorrah to the phenomenon. In one section, I described attacks on Giffords’ office after the passage of Obama’s healthcare plan:
…at least 10 Democratic members of Congress reported receiving death threats. Images of nooses were faxed to the offices of Stupak and James Clyburn, an African-American congressman from South Carolina. Representative Anthony Weiner, an especially vocal proponent of health care reform, received a menacing letter filled with white powder. The brother of Representative Tom Perriello, another health care supporter, had his home gas line deliberately sabotaged after a local Tea Party organizer posted his address online (he had meant to post the congressman’s) and encouraged activists to “drop by” to express their anger about Perriello’s recent vote. In Tucson, Arizona, the windows of Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ office were shattered by shots from a pellet gun. And a brick was thrown through the window of Representative Louise Slaughter’s office in New York as her voicemail filled with threats of impending sniper attacks.
After the passage of the health care bill, the Tea Party floated into a gray zone between authoritarianism and anarchy. Crusading to restore a holy social order, they promoted disorder. Claiming to protect democracy, they smashed windows of elected representatives. Warning of death panels, they called in death threats. With the atmosphere of violence thickening, Palin took to her Twitter account to issue a battle cry: “Don’t Retreat, Instead–RELOAD!” Thus concluded the first phase of the Obama era that was to usher in a peaceable kingdom of bipartisanship.
Now Giffords and five others are dead, (there are still a few reports that she “is in surgery”) victims of a shooting spree by an unknown 21-year-old male. The killer has been taken into custody but remains unidentified. Until his motives are known, it is unfair to lay the blame at the feet of Fox News and the far-right, though I see people are not hesitating to do that on Twitter. Arizona is a very violent, gun-happy environment (see my video report on anti-Obama gun culture). I know because I have covered politics in the state since 2002, focusing on the rise of the anti-immigration movement and nativist vigilantism. In Arizona’s climate of violence, anything is possible.
David Fitzsimmons of the Arizona Daily Star just said on CNN that “the right has been stoking the fires of rage and hatred successfully for so long. And what motivated the killer of Gabrielle Giffords, who was a moderate, shows everything that is wrong with politics in this state.” Giffords barely survived a vicious campaign against a Tea Party opponent who held a rally to “shoot a fully automatic M16” to “get on target” and “remove Gabrielle Giffords.” Giffords was also on Palin’s “target list” of vulnerable Democrats.
Arizona is the home of the country’s most ignorant, extreme, Republican-dominated state legislature in the country. And a little known fact about Giffords: she was the first Jew to be elected to Congress from Arizona. Everything is pointing in one direction but for now all we can say that a decent person and public servant, someone who was close to some of my friends in Tucson, is dead.
I will be on Al Jazeera English at 7PM ET to discuss the killingMy appearance has been bumped to Sunday. And I will have more once the identity of the shooter is revealed.