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Magazine / Cover Story

In Hate’s Wake

The Tucson massacre has sparked a discussion of whether overheated political rhetoric contributes to political violence.

Members and staffers observe a moment of silence outside the House side of the Capitol on Monday, two days after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in Tucson. From left: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.; John Lawrence, chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California; Barry Jackson, chief of staff to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio; Del. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer. (Chet Susslin/National Journal)

photo of Michael Hirsh
January 13, 2011

Updated at 4:45 p.m. on January 13.

The world was going to recognize him, at long last. Humanity would, in the end, delight in the boldness of his actions. A failure all his life, the would-be assassin was enraged at being ignored, contemptuous of all those around him who slighted his superior understanding of human existence.

He wasn’t especially political, but he recorded incoherent political ramblings, demented shards of issues patched together from the rhetoric of the time. Alone, jobless, and friendless, he blamed everybody but himself for his personal miseries. And the gunman appeared to think that his actions were permissible in a virulent political environment in which adversaries were routinely cast as evil or immoral or treasonous.

 

Based on what law-enforcement officials and reporters know so far from interviewing his former friends and reading his Internet postings, many of these attributes would seem to describe Jared Lee Loughner. Before firing at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on January 8, Loughner obsessed over what a “fake” she was because she did not sufficiently answer a nonsensical question he had asked her at a campaign rally, Loughner’s former friend, Bryce Tierney, told Mother Jones magazine. Loughner believed that government is “f—king us over,” Tierney said. “Die Bitch,” Loughner wrote on a letter from Giffords’s office that police turned up.

But this description also fits another wannabe assassin from 130 years earlier, a man who appears to have been at least as deranged as Loughner: Charles Guiteau, who fired two bullets into President Garfield on July 2, 1881. Like Loughner, Guiteau was a failure who had no job, no friends, and had been dumped by his significant other (in Guiteau’s case, his wife; in Loughner’s, a girlfriend).

Only late in a desultory career did Guiteau begin to discover and opine on political issues, as he sought to benefit personally from a bitter factional battle within the Republican Party at a time of economic distress not unlike today. In the end, Guiteau grew so obsessed with the idea of killing Garfield that he wrote that the assassination was “not murder” at all but “a political necessity,” according to Famous Trials, a website maintained by Douglas Linder, a law professor at the University of Missouri.

The political issues of that earlier era—post-Civil War America—have long since been forgotten. And Guiteau, when he is remembered at all, is often dismissed in the history books as a “disappointed office seeker.” He was a lone loony, in other words, divorced not only from reality but also from his times.

 

No assassin is an island, no matter how “nuts.”

This is, perhaps, the most common meme in official histories of American assassinations. Even the Warren Commission report on President Kennedy’s murder, in surveying the killings in the Jim Crow South, judged that those gunmen were “acting alone” even though all were clearly motivated by racism, says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a liberal-leaning think tank. Today, the antigovernment rhetoricians of the tea party movement and the ranters-for-rent who populate cable TV are likewise insisting that Loughner had nothing to do with their groups, or their platforms, or what was said on their TV shows.

“There’s no evidence that I know of that this person was anything except nuts,” Newt Gingrich, the maestro of the immoderate sound bite, told one interviewer.

Perhaps. But let’s not deceive ourselves: When it comes to political violence and assassination, the times do count for something. No assassin is an island, no matter how “nuts.” And although historical and sociological data are scant, a number of historians, sociologists, and psychologists believe that a correlation exists between periods of angry or intense political divisions in American history and political violence, particularly killings. This was especially true of the post-Civil War period; the turn of the 20th century, when anarchists were prevalent (one of them killed President McKinley); the late 1960s, which witnessed massive upheaval and a spate of assassinations and shootings; and the 1990s, which spawned militia movements that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. And it is perhaps true today.

Loughner’s rampage may have been the first assassination attempt on a high U.S. public official in decades—since John Hinckley shot President Reagan in 1981—but other acts of political violence have occurred recently: the cases of Joseph Stack, an antigovernment zealot who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, last February, killing himself and an IRS official; and a neo-Nazi named Richard Poplawski who killed three police officers in Pittsburgh in April 2009, telling friends he was afraid that President Obama would take away his guns.

“Most of our violence in America comes from psychopathology, not politics,” says Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist at Northeastern University. “But when political violence does occur, it does seem to happen during periods of economic and political tension, controversy, and intense debate when people feel threatened, when they feel they must defend economic interests, their culture, or religion.” The difference between would-be political assassins or perpetrators of violence and ordinary sociopathic killers who have no conscience at all, Levin says, is that “not only do the former have a conscience but they believe sincerely they are doing something entirely justified morally.” And those views are often encouraged by “nasty, dehumanizing rhetoric that justifies in the mind of the shooter that he is the victim, not the perpetrator.”

 

INFECTED MINDS

It’s always easy to dismiss politicians’ calls for toned-down rhetoric as namby-pamby pandering—Giffords herself sent out one such message to constituents a few days before she was shot. But the January 8 attack is “a reminder that hate speech also kills. It may not kill directly, but it may kill by infecting a mind,” says former Rep. Bob Edgar, who, like Giffords, was a Democrat in a mostly red district, in his case in eastern Pennsylvania.

True, it is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to trace the precise motives of many would-be assassins in history, and Loughner’s motivations remain a mystery. “The FBI has not studied the issue,” Ann Todd, a special agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit in Quantico, Va., told National Journal when asked whether political violence tends to occur more during periods of especially virulent political debate or deep political divides.

But common sense suggests that it can’t be mere coincidence that Giffords’s 8th District was among the most politically polarized places in the United States at the moment that Jared Loughner set out for that Safeway. Or that it was only an accident that Arizona itself had become the nation’s “mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” in the controversial words of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. Or that it means little that Loughner and other Arizonans were ingesting a daily diet of fear and loathing over the state’s red-hot immigration issue and over Giffords’s support of “Obamacare.” The lawmaker had herself fretted over a sense of increasing threat at home; 10 months before the shooting, the window on the front door of her district office had been broken.

The question is whether, if indeed a causal link exists between political turmoil and greater political violence, these long-established tendencies in American discourse have become more dangerous. And, if so, can we do anything about it? In a world in which almost any crazy idea can find a home—and a URL—on the Internet or in some vicious corner of Cable TV Land, ready-made legitimization and encouragement awaits even the most deluded among us. (Was it really a revelation to learn that Loughner’s wild ramblings about “grammar mind control” may stem from the website of a 62-year-old former tool-and-die maker from Milwaukee named David Wynn Miller?)

Indeed, it is somewhat striking that even more violence doesn’t occur when lunatic lone wolves can find validation (a tribute, perhaps, to better security, especially post-9/11). “The Internet can give a false sense of support and legitimacy to people who have views of the world that are several standard deviations out,” says Michael Barkum, author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. “They gain a sense that they’re not the only ones out there who are thinking like this. That’s new.… That’s something that wasn’t there before.”

 

FROM GUITEAU TO McVEIGH

Political turmoil and violence often occur during economic hard times—although there is no evidence that the Great Recession and its aftermath had anything to do with Loughner’s actions. Guiteau shot Garfield amid the so-called Long Depression, which began with the Panic of 1873 and, after a brief respite, extended to the 1890s. Guiteau was, by most accounts of the time, quite insane (even his father called him “a fit subject for a lunatic asylum”), but he was nonetheless a passionate participant in the angry debates between two long-forgotten factions of the GOP. These were the Stalwarts, who sought to nominate Ulysses Grant for a third term and backed political patronage, and the Half-Breeds, government reformers who favored Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine.

Garfield emerged as a compromise candidate. Guiteau, who called himself “the most Stalwart of the Stalwarts,” turned bitterly against Garfield after the president ignored his pleas for a diplomatic appointment. Like Loughner, he felt offended that the political powers of his day were ignoring him. “There are parallels between the stories of Guiteau and Loughner,” Linder says. “Both were probably paranoid schizophrenics.” And like Loughner, Guiteau “over-personalized what was going on in his world. Everybody else, including Garfield, was a bit player in his life.”

Sixteen years before that, when the political wounds of the Civil War were raw, John Wilkes Booth was enraged by his failed efforts to rally his fellow Southerners to a new insurrection. When he killed President Lincoln, he saw himself, delusionally, as the salvation of the defeated South. Booth famously cried sic semper tyrannis (“thus always to tyrants”) as he leapt onto the stage of Ford’s Theater not just because he was an accomplished thespian but also because he really believed that Lincoln was a would-be emperor, the Caesar to his own Brutus.

In 1901, Leon Czolgosz, the murderer of President McKinley, was clearly influenced by the anarchist movement then sweeping Europe and the United States, although he, like Loughner, was apparently not a member of any group. From 1894 until McKinley’s killing, anarchists knocked off a series of heads of states, believing that decapitation of top leaders could change society fundamentally. (Czolgosz later said that the murder of King Umberto I of Italy by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci the year before had deeply influenced him.) Czolgosz believed that great injustice prevailed in American society at the turn of the century; his last words before dying in the electric chair were, “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people,” according to I Done My Duty: The Complete Story of the Assassination of President McKinley, a 2002 book by Jeffrey Seibert.

The antiwar-protest period of the late 1960s, of course, featured a spate of assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy) and near-assassinations, culminating in Arthur Bremer’s shooting of George Wallace in 1972 and the attempt by one of the bedraggled last members of the Manson family, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, on President Ford in 1975.

Again, one cannot draw any one-to-one correlation between much of this violence and the vicious politics of the era. But there is prima facie evidence: James Earl Ray, the ne’er-do-well bank robber who murdered King, was a virulent racist who had volunteered for George Wallace’s segregationist-minded presidential campaign and who took heart from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s demonization of the civil-rights leader as a communist. Ray also had a sense of validation from authorities, who routinely depicted the Left as rampaging out of control across the country. A white-supremacist group had put a $50,000 price on King’s head.

 

It strains credulity to suggest that it was only coincidence that Gabrielle Giffords’s congressional district in Arizona was among the most politically polarized places in the United States at the moment that Jared Loughner set out for that Safeway.

Sometimes “violence can beget violence” during these highly charged periods, says Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University in San Bernardino. Like Loughner, Bremer appeared to have no political convictions, but he was apparently stoked by the zeitgeist. Bremer wrote in his diary that he wanted to do something “bold and dramatic, forceful and dynamic” and declared, “It is my personal plan to assassinate by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace.”

Even in the early ’60s, before the rise of outrage over the Vietnam War, fear and loathing from the McCarthyite scares lingered. Indeed, one reason that Kennedy made the trip to Dallas on that day in 1963 was that it was seen as a place of extreme right-wing discontent; U.N. Ambassador and former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson had been jabbed with anti-U.N. picket signs there a month before the assassination. Was it just a coincidence that Lee Harvey Oswald, an angry ex-defector to the Soviet Union who was loosely associated with the communist movement, had rooted himself there?

The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 occurred in a period of militia activity (although Timothy McVeigh was not apparently a group member). “In times of overheated political rhetoric, we see people emerging who may not be part of an organized political movement, but it may be influencing them, particularly in a world of Internet correspondence and talk radio,” says David Bennett of Syracuse University, the author of The Party of Fear: The American Far Right From Nativism to the Militia Movement. “During more-stable periods, say the height of the Cold War or World War II, when the government is viewed in a more benign light, the anti-government activity dies down.”

 

CATEGORIES OF KILLERS

Some researchers say that it is very hard to map any clear motivations for these acts. Brian Levin describes three basic categories of political killers: ideologically and theologically motivated people driven by events or apocalyptic prophecies; those who are psychologically disturbed such as Loughner (whom Levin likens more to a Mark David Chapman, who claimed he had killed John Lennon because he discovered the ex-Beatle was “phony”); and those who act out of a personal grudge, such as Guiteau. Despite the overlap between the stories of Guiteau and Loughner, Levin says it’s a mistake to lump the three categories together and suggest that all political assassins are tied to the political culture. “That’s to create a three-headed hydra,” he says.

It also seems that, despite the reappearance of economic themes in radical literature—such as an obsession with currency issues, a favorite of Loughner’s—political turmoil that incites violence is just as often unrelated to economic distress. The Great Depression saw little political violence, for example, setting aside the attempt on President-elect Franklin Roosevelt’s life in early 1933 and the assassination of Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana in 1935.

Whatever the cause of such acts, the solution is not necessarily to over-censor ourselves—to play a least-common-denominator politics that shrinks from the lunatic fringe and gives violence-prone extremists a veto power over our rhetoric. After all, overheated rhetoric is as American as, well, the Founders. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams indulged in it freely. Jefferson went so far as to hire a vicious spinmeister, a pamphleteer named James Callender, to plant newspaper stories about his rival.

Even a renowned moderate such as James Madison got carried away at times, drawing up a list of “those who were friends of the Constitution and who were enemies,” notes Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School. “He all but accused the Hamiltonians of wanting to destroy the Republic.” And speaking of Alexander Hamilton, he and Aaron Burr ultimately fought a deadly duel over their political differences (Hamilton lost).

 

A number of historians believe that there is a correlation between periods of angry or intense political divisions in American history and political violence, particularly killings. This was true during in the late 1960s, which witnessed massive upheaval and a spate of assassinations and shootings.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his classic essay and book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the nation’s politics have always been “an arena for angry minds.” Because a political enemy is typically “thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated,” Hofstadter wrote. We’re all guilty of overreaching at times, including this magazine (the week of Giffords’s shooting, National Journal’s cover type about new House Speaker John Boehner suggested that he would “aim before he shoots”).

Nor is it likely that the First Amendment right to free speech will ever be defined down to the point where wild accusations on the Internet or cable TV can be restricted or prosecuted. Constraints of free speech have been almost nonexistent since a 1969 Supreme Court decision that permits any statement that didn’t provoke an “imminent lawless activity.” By that standard, just about anything can be said anywhere, and that’s not going to change. “I don’t think we will gain anything by trying to regulate speech,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks political extremists.

Instead, we might want to think about embracing, at least philosophically, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous definition of the limits of free speech as “falsely crying fire in a crowded theater.” (Even Holmes defined the threshold for prohibition as presenting a “clear and present danger,” which would excuse most of the public ranting going on today.)

Perhaps Holmes’s “crowded theater” concept should be updated for the crowded hothouse world of cable TV and the Internet, wherein irresponsible rhetoric is likely to engender violent rage in someone out there listening. If we know that there is a likelihood that calling a political opponent a “traitor” (or in the case of Obama, a fraudulent American) could easily incite someone surfing the Web or listening on radio to harm that person, should there be a moral constraint, if not a legal one? Perhaps “killing” or “murdering” metaphors in political speech should go the way of the “N” word or other epithets that are no longer acceptable in public forums of any kind, even among extremists.

There is no reason why people who debate and discuss on the Internet or on TV and radio can’t act as though there’s a little red light that will flash on if they start to get a little frothy or violent in their choice of words—and why hosts can’t remind them if they forget. One obvious line we might draw, for example, is to avoid gun metaphors. It is worthwhile noting that in National Journal’s Insider’s Poll accompanying this article, the rhetoric that most respondents, both Democratic and Republican, objected to evoked gunfire, such as former Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s infamous reference to resorting to “Second Amendment remedies.”

And, again, the Left can be just as guilty as the Right. For example, former Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., might want to rethink his statement last October that Rick Scott, now the governor of Florida, ought to be put “against the wall” and shot. “To me,” Potok says, “the line to be drawn is falsehoods—provable falsehoods.”

There’s a problem, of course, with this solution as well. How do we really know what is factual any longer? The biggest problem with today’s media mayhem is that there’s no direction home to truth any longer; few trusted outlets remain. And that means that obvious falsehoods can linger indefinitely in the cyber-ether. Feldman says, however, that this is a return to normalcy. “If you go back to the beginning of the Republic, it is striking that there was no such thing as nonpartisan newspapers. It was very hard to know what the truth was. What we’re going back to is much more similar to the first 120 years of the nation’s history.”

That may be true. But the practice of hate-mongering in America—our national “paranoia,” to cite Hofstadter—may have reached a tipping point of ugliness in today’s Internet-paced media world. And it may well be time for a broad reconsideration of how Americans talk about one another in public. 

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of a California university.

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