We are now seeing a concerted attempt to obscure and confuse the meaning of the terrorist act that took place in Tucson, Arizona.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, many people expressed their revulsion at the violent rhetoric that’s become so much a part of contemporary conservatism, particularly in the US. Since then, however, the push back has begun.

Some commentators simply deny that the massacre possesses any political significance whatsoever. Look at his YouTube clips, they say. Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter, was nuts, a crazy person. That was all this was about: a disturbed man, living out a violent fantasy.

Now, at the most facile level, that’s obviously true. Most of us do not open fire on crowds. Normal people do not do go on killing sprees  —  by definition those who do so are not normal.

Mind you, you could make exactly the same point about almost any serious crime. Are all murderers abnormal? Well, in one sense, yes. But as an explanation, that tells us nothing. It’s an entirely circular argument.

The real question is why such crimes take the particular form that they do. As Mark Ames points out, gun massacres in the US are actually comparatively recent, dating, as a social phenomenon, from the mid-1980s. Obviously, there were disturbed people who did awful things in the US before then. The point is, though, that their acts took a different form, in a different social context. Ames thus argues that the rise of the workplace massacre (and the closely related school massacre) actually correlates with the massive social dislocations produced by economic reform in the US at that time.

Now, he might be right or wrong about that (his Going Postal is a very interesting book) but it’s a least a serious attempt at an analysis rather than a retreat to psychological banalities.

So let’s try something similar about Tucson. What was the context for this crime? In what particular social setting did it take place?

As soon as you ask that question, you have to acknowledge the cult of political violence associated with the contemporary populist right. In 2009, I wrote a piece for New Matilda that covered similar ground. Here’s a chunk of that argument:

In April this year, a man named Richard Poplawski ambushed and killed three Pittsburgh police officers. Poplawski was a paranoiac white supremacist. He feared a sinister cabal controlling the federal government, the media, and the banking system. These malevolent internationalists were, he thought, coming to take his guns. On the neo-Nazi site Stormfront, Poplawski illustrated his theories with YouTube clips of Glenn Beck discussing the supposed FEMA concentration camps with Congressman Ron Paul.

Naturally, in the wake of Pittsburgh, Beck professed outrage at any association with Poplawski. Why, the man was a Nazi, a nut, solely responsible for his own crimes. The vast majority of Beck’s fans were ordinary Americans, law-abiding folk as appalled at gun massacres as anyone.

Which was, no doubt, true. Yet, in his new book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalised the American Right, the journalist David Neiwert argues that Beck — and others like him — should not so easily escape responsibility for a violent fringe. For years, Neiwert has been monitoring the mainstreaming of the particularly dangerous kind of right-wing populism he calls “eliminationism”. An example: on a radio show syndicated to 160 stations, Beck once mused: “I’m thinking about killing [filmmaker] Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it.”

It is, Neiwert says, increasingly common to hear media figures with mass audiences discussing liberals as carcinogens on the body politic. In prominent blogger Michelle Malkin’s book Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild, liberals are insane; in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, they are fascists; in widely syndicated radio host Michael Savage’s The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military (and in scores of similar books) they are traitors, destroying the nation from within. The three titles above were all bestsellers.

Yes, the last decade saw an equal proliferation of Bush-bashing texts. For Neiwert, however, eliminationism fundamentally differs from the anti-Republican stylings of Moore or Al Franken because of its rhetorical violence. Once you diagnose liberalism as a cancer, its excision is already implied. There is, therefore, a certain inevitability to the tone of Savage’s radio show. “I say round them up and hang ’em high,” he tells his listeners.

The columnist Ann Coulter’s best-selling books include a text entitled Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. With treason traditionally attracting the death penalty, it’s no surprise when Coulter tells an interviewer that she prefers to communicate with progressives via “a baseball bat”. On another famous occasion, she said of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, “My only regret […] is he did not go to the [liberal] New York Times building,” a quip that she subsequently amplified and repeated.

That was more than a year ago. Since then, the rise of the Tea Party movement has led to massive rhetorical escalation. Consider the collection of images that TBOGG compiled from recent Tea Party events.


Yes, there’s over-heated rhetoric at left-wing rallies, too. But when the Tea Partiers talk about armed resistance, they’re doing so to a constituency in which guns have an almost talismanic significance. Hence the photos of protesters carrying machine guns.

(Just in passing, ask yourself what would happen if armed Muslim or black radicals massed in Washington. Would that be dismissed as harmless hijinks, do you think?)

Furthermore, while the Tea Party likes to describe itself as a grass roots phenomenon, it’s closely connected to a well-funded conservative infrastructure that includes FOX news, thousands of talk radio shows, think-tanks and publishing houses. Glen Beck might be a fringe thinker but he’s a fringe thinker who reaches millions of people. When he thus explains that the Federal Emergency Management Agency plan to establish concentration camps for dissidents or he enthuses about armed groups of conservative whites fighting against the government in a civil war, it’s a message that gets heard across the country.

*Read the rest of this at the Overland blog site.