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Expert: Political Rhetoric Likely a Factor in Arizona Shooting

By Hatewatch Staff on January 21, 2011 - 11:23 am, Posted in Extremist Crime

Editor’s Note: In a Jan. 19 letter published in The New York Times, Arizona political scientist James W. Clarke argued that it would be wrong to dismiss the idea that the toxic political environment was a factor in Jared L. Loughner‘s attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an attack that left six people dead and 13 others injured. Clarke is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he has taught courses in race and public policy, and violent crime and political order. He is the author of Defining Danger: American Assassins and the New Domestic Terrorists and five other books on criminal violence.

Hatewatch asked the professor to elaborate on his letter. Here are his comments:

By James W. Clarke

Over a long academic career, I have researched and written about 21 American assassins, would-be assassins and domestic terrorists. It is pure nonsense to suggest, as some have, that the political environment has nothing to do with the actions of very disturbed individuals – as the Tucson shooter, Jared L. Loughner appears to be – who plan and attack political figures in public venues.

I’ve identified four types of perpetrators in these troubling events. Loughner’s actions fit a pattern that includes President Ronald Reagan’s attacker, John W. Hinckley Jr., and Arthur Bremer, presidential candidate George Wallace’s would-be assassin. There are many similarities, but let me mention the most significant: Both Hinckley and Bremer considered committing mass murder before selecting their political victims – Hinckley on the Yale campus, Bremer at a busy Milwaukee intersection.

What motivates this type of would-be assassin is the notoriety that comes with killing either a great number of ordinary people or a prominent individual. Loughner went for both.

Another similarity is the art-imitates-life connection between Bremer and the film Taxi Driver starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, the eerie cab driver/assassin/mass murderer. In developing the Bickle character, Paul Schrader’s script shows the influence of Arthur Bremer’s own An Assassin’s Diary. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, art then influenced life as John Hinckley saw that film multiple times and was greatly influenced by it – to the extent that, in dress and behavior, he began to take on the attributes of the Bickle character. Also, Hinckley’s well-known romantic interest in the actress Jodi Foster began with his infatuation with Iris, the teenage prostitute Foster played in the film. One cannot say whether the final bloody scenes in that film, as Bickle rescues Iris from her pimps, were contemplated by Hinckley as he considered mass murder at Yale and, ultimately, as he opened fire on Reagan and others on March 30, 1981.

For Hinckley, Bremer and – until the evidence is in, I’m willing to bet – Loughner, their victims become trophies in a suicidal quest for lead-story notoriety. In Tucson, Giffords was Loughner’s primary target, the first to be shot. As Giffords recognized and acknowledged, she had been targeted in a particularly toxic re-election campaign. For example, in addition to being placed in Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs,” her Tea Party-backed opponent ran the following invitation on his campaign website: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

It’s easy to see how the threats and rancor of that time could have provided a facilitating context for an angry, depressed person to act out – someone like Jared Loughner, intent on violence, who had easy access to an exceedingly deadly weapon.

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    With so many other right-wing attacks with stronger, more tenable ties to right-wing rhetoric, it is strange that this one seems to get the most ongoing attention. Can anyone even verify that this guy even saw the infamous Palin “targets” poster?

  • Lynn

    I would like to understand more on the analysis of the “Terror Management Theory” used by a previous administration. Is this a reason why the right uses the fear of the government taking gun rights away from the public even though the Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of gun rights. It seems to grow from there to the frenzy about violence against political opponents.

    It seems like a great uneasy feeling of pending violence and terror dominates our security. A seemingly innocent political conversation that leads to anger in attempts to be correct. It has been incredible to watch or read the daily news. I dread the misinformation that is spewed to the public. I keep telling my sister, who is a tea bagger, fox news fan that she should develope her own critical thinking skills by researching history to find the truth. It is amazing this down right lies that are told to the public!

    History has once again repeated itself. The Great Depression resulted in a like political environment as today. I would like to recommend a book by Sinclair Lewis call “It Can’t Happen Here”. It is a very good read!

  • Khalil

    I believe organizations and groups espousing hateful rhetoric certainly influenced Mr. Loughner. Sadly so much of these hateful rhetoricians are well funded and have powerful allies. In the past, wouldn’t someone who espoused 2nd amendment remedies be put on a terrorist watch list? Mr. Loughner apparently attended Faithful Word Baptist Church, a church whose pastor openly prays for the death of Obama. Are members of this congregation praising Loughners murder spree?

  • skinnyminny

    La Piovra,
    I agree! Limbaugh was on-air insulting the ‘Chinese language.’ In other words, disrespecting Hu Jintao. He refuses to apologize. The right have disrespected, IMO, the king of Saudi Arabia when they criticized Obama for bowing, and the affectionate touching of the Queen.

    Now, there is Mr. Gaffney criticizing the GOP’s CPAC, accusing them of letting Muslims infiltrate the GOP. Apparently, CPAC is allegedly hosting Gellar and Spencer’s documentary at a coming CPAC event. I think the film is called, “Ground Zero Mosque, and the second 9/11.” Allegedly, Mr. Gaffney is making accusations that Muslims for America is part of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    I’d like to know what’s going to happen with this. The rightwing have insulted Latin Americans, Blacks, Asians, Muslims, Jews and they believe they have a chance at getting the White House in 2012! BTW, Keith Olbermann announced on his show earlier this week that he had received a death threat.

  • Robert Castle

    Rhetoric has always been a dangerous weapon because one skilled in the art thereof can persuade even the rational to act contrary to their own beliefs. Who can authoritatively say that one suffering from mental illness is not more easily moved to act contrary to cultural norms than one without such an impairment of his faculties?

  • Robert Castle

    One statement in the letter particularly caught my attention – “…in addition to being placed in Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs,” her Tea Party-backed opponent ran the following invitation on his campaign website: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.’” This is the first time that I have seen this evidence which tends to further support the culpability of Ms. Palin in particular and the tea party in general. Why hasn’t this incriminatory statement received more publicity?

  • La Piovra

    It’s nonetheless the case that the Fox wing has been using constant incendiary rhetoric, and that Fox viewers are the sort who think all media except Fox are lying to them. Whack jobs have lived in all ages, but their delusions are formed by the times. It is rare to find men these days who think witches are making their penises tiny, but that was a favorite in the Inquisition. On the other hand, extraterrestrial persecution was unthought of before Cyrano de Bergerac wrote about Selenites and rare before the broadcast of War of the Worlds. The current pumping up of rhetoric about Muslims/Mexicans/death panels/terror babies/ a President who is identified with all of the above, is going to tip someone the wrong way if it hasn’t already.

  • Robert Castle

    Traditionally rhetoric was defined and taught as a reason giving method of argument used to persuade another to adopt another one’s statement as the truth. Over the centuries philosophers and honorable statesmen have used it very effectively for the common good. In our time it has been thoroughly corrupted by the likes of Fox News and other Rupert Murdoch media outlets not to mention the neoconservative think tanks.. Today it is common knowledge that even educated and rational people can be persuaded by hate messages to act contrary to their best interest. Why would not a person suffering from a mental disease affecting his rationality not be even more easily moved by such calumnies?

  • skinnyminny

    Oh well, just saw the last show of Olbermann. I guess there is no need for me to view MSNBC anymore. The only cable shows I viewed were Olbermann & Maddow. Without Olbermann there’s no need to bother. I guess all of the cable channels want the political rhetoric for ratings. Goodbye cable, hello internet!

  • Snorlax

    Glenn Beck has joined G. Gordon Liddy in recommending the “Second Amendment Solution” to their problems.

    What’s next, boys? The FINAL Solution?

    The hate speech is getting out of hand.

  • skinnyminny

    I agree with the expert. Again, I’ve noticed how anytime, i.e. Michael Steele, made appearances on television, they have had to apologize to Limbaugh in a begging manner as if they are also asking for forgiveness.

    I, for one, am tired of the GOP, tea party, libertarians getting on television saying, “the American people want…” I am a liberal, and I am an American. The above group do not speak for me. Yet, they get on television trying to tell everyone what everyone wants. To me, this kind of explains why some of these guys are complaining about mind/grammar control. I really believe we are reliving the Hubert Humphrey era.

  • Insider

    As pointed out by a colleague, Jared Loughner didn’t fixate on a political figure the way James Clarke believes. He fixated on the Dream world thesis of David Icke who believes that a “reptilian bloodline” rules the world.

    When Russell E. Weston went after Tom Delay, in 1998, he fixated on a “army of cannibals”, no one ascribed political motives to his actions. Like Chapman, Hinckley, Bardo and Weston, Loughner fixated on politicians or well known entertainers not because of politics, but because these individuals all suffering from very low self esteem craved fame, attention and notoriety and when they went after these kinds of folks they got tons of it, from the media.

    Loughner at first fixated on his college by calling it a “genocide school”, “torturing its students”. The trigger for his horrendous acts wasn’t his expulsion by the school it was the massive media attention Chapman got on the 30th anniversary of the Lennon murder, just 30 days prior.

    I taught college classes in a prison extension program in Michigan. In my classes I had Toni Cato Riggs of Desert Storm fame who had her husband murdered and two girls nicknamed Maytag and Microwave, because sadly this was how they murdered their babies. I also had a girl named Star Trek because when someone in her family changed the TV channel (she was obsessively watching it) she murdered her entire family. It would be absurd to ban Star Trek and Maytags or Microwaves because of their actions. Just like it would be absurb to ban Catcher in the Rye read obsessively by Hinckley, Chapman and Bardo. Or even blame Jodie Foster and Taxi Driver for the Reagan shootings. Or even ban dogs because after all one talked David Berkowitz into being the Son of Sam killer.

    Apparently Mr Clarke cannot differentiate from true political motives crimes and plain and simple paranoid schizophrenia crimes or even the intersection of the two. The validity and accuracy of his letter to the New York Times regarding Loughner and his entire book “Defining Danger” must be questioned.

  • skinnyminny

    Jonas Rand,
    Well, let’s not dismiss their theories of government controls grammar. I am starting to think that maybe some on the right believe this actually. Here’s why, I’ve noticed how some of the loudmouths i.e. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Pat Buchanan, and some of the other GOP representatives on television always like to control the interview, talking points, talk louder than the other side…Boehner initially appeared as a loudmouth bully, now he cries more than I do. LOL!

    BTW, I think the professor is correct. Someone in Sta. Ana, Califas spray-painted death threats against our newly elected gov. Brown. Notice how most of these threats are against Democrats!

  • Jonas Rand

    The obvious explanation is that it was political, not because of some left wing conspiracy to blame the right, but because the target of the shooting was a politician. Instead of defending violent rhetoric, how about Beck, Limbaugh, and David Wynn Miller (the “sovereign” nutjob who said that the government controls grammar) just stop peddling it? Maybe they shouldn’t create an atmosphere of hate within their right-wing echo chamber and quit spreading fear?

    Jared was right about religion being a system of mind control, though. There’s no proof that it was actually Beck, who is a Mormon and peddles the fundamentalist “God made us” line that leads to closed minds and unscientific practice worldwide.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Let’s just have the facts. No rhetoric.

  • Leslie

    http://tinyurl.com/6352www Glenn Beck tells his audience to shoot the subversive elements in the the head.

  • Mrs. Julie Owens Evans

    Politicians should be especially mindful of the importance of avoiding inflammatory, hateful rhetoric that might incite and trigger a mentally disturbed individual, better to err on the side of caution…though there’s no evidence Loughner was influenced by Sarah Palin having Gabby Giffords in her “crosshairs,” and possibly acting out on that, you can’t help but wonder what poor Gabby must be thinking, considering, in regards to this, if she even knows, yet, what happened to her. We hope and pray daily for Gabby’s continued marvelous and miraculous recovery, for the other victims working on their recovery, and special prayers for the victims who didn’t survive…May They Rest in Peace…

  • Jonathan Freed

    Very good academic article describing madness. Purchasing “American Assassins” to learn more. Thanks.

  • Gayle Stamler

    Thank you, Mr. Clarke, for a thoughtful analysis. I hope that more people will actually listen rather than reverting to the usual knee-jerk “don’t blame us” rhetoric.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Well. You got to blame somebody. It mine as well be the right. Liberals will never be happy until Loughner is found guilty of getting his ideas from the right.

  • Ian
  • Ed

    I love all the talk of this terrorist being “apolitical,” and yet, he chose a political target. By definition, this piece of garbage was not apolitical. Thank you for sharing your opinion. You will likely hear from a number of detractors in the next few days, “experts” in the field of human behavior.