Expert: Political Rhetoric Likely a Factor in Arizona Shooting

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.