One day after Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as president on Jan. 20, 2009, 22-year-old Keith Luke went on a killing spree in Brockton, Massachusetts. He was captured by police after killing a 20-year-old woman from the African nation of Cape Verde, raping and shooting her sister, and gunning down an elderly homeless man, also from Cape Verde. Luke said that he was “fighting extinction” of the white race and had been also planning to “kill as many Jews as possible” at a local synagogue before blowing his own brains out.
Since then, there have been at least seven other cases of disturbed white men (and one white woman) committing political murders after becoming hopped up on guns, right-wing media, and anti-government and anti-Obama blather. The latest incident is the Jan. 8 rampage in Tucson by Jared Loughner, who murdered six, shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords through her brain and wounded 13 others.
This trend is just the tip of the iceberg. Numerous heavily armed and extreme-right fanatics have been arrested for making “terroristic threats” against the president, foiled before they could carry out plots to assassinate Obama, and in one instance killed be¬fore he could finish a radioactive dirty bomb – described as “far ahead of Jose Padilla, the accused al-Qaeda dirty-bomb plotter” – that he intended to detonate in Washington, D.C. Others have been arrested while on their way to murder public figures or after making death threats against them. Some pundits have issued explicit calls for someone to shoot Obama, while many prominent right-wing talk-show hosts and Republicans have openly endorsed armed violence against the federal government or sitting politicians.
This is occurring as anger is being whipped up, especially by the right-wing media, against Muslims, Mexicans, gays and lesbians, and politicians, which serves to legitimize violent attacks and murders against members of these groups.
The Tucson shooting was thus no surprise, but it should serve as a wake-up call that hate and violence are encoded in the political DNA of the American right.
It is simply undeniable that there has been a pervasive pattern of right-wing violence since Obama ascended the national stage in 2008. After each incident the corporate media and politicians rush to portray the perpetrator as a sick, crazy and disturbed loner. This may be true, but the intended message is that these are all incomprehensible and isolated episodes, and only the language of religious morality – good and evil – can explain them.
Obama said this outright in his widely praised memorial speech in Tucson on Jan. 12: “Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.”
THE PRODUCTION OF VIOLENCE
This childlike worldview is a denial of reality, namely the social context. The calls for blood are so visible and lavish, the right’s language so apocalyptic, the glorification of guns so fervent, the political violence so frequent that these are not isolated instances but the outcome of a process of social production.
Why has there been this epidemic of political violence over the last few years, but a complete lack of similar violence from the left and liberals during the Bush era when passions were equally inflamed? The reason for this stark contrast lies within the strain of reactionary politics that dominates the American right. (By “right,” I mean reactionary, as explained below. Others on the right, such as many libertarians, oppose much of the scapegoating and demonization.)
The right thrives on mobilizing group resentment, and the range of its targets over the last 50 years is astonishing: gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Latinos, feminists, welfare recipients, reproductive-rights activists, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, government officials, prisoners, intellectuals, liberals, antiwar activists and unions.
PROFITING OFF DOOM
The group resentment is fomented and stoked in doomsaying terms. In a time of epic joblessness, demagogues like Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage are able to convince tens of millions of alienated Americans that their problems and the national malaise are the fault of Mexicans, liberals, abortionists and homosexuals. Politicians willing to exploit this hatred can find a large and passionate base. Because extremism stands out in our media-saturated culture, the most outrageous voices tend to be the most successful. This makes compromise and reasoned discourse almost impossible, while the corporate money that runs the political system prevents any meaningful attempt to address social ills. The result is a seething mass of reactionary white Americans apoplectic with anger but with no ready outlet.
In a society that reveres guns and violence, it becomes inevitable that some on the fringe, mentally and socially, will grab their guns and start blazing away, especially after they have been told society is collapsing and the forces of darkness — such as Muslims and Obama — are coming for them. The only surprise is that there haven’t been more Jared Loughners in the last two years. The political murders are appalling, but the greater danger is an organized social expression of the rage. Now, fascism is one of the most-overused terms in American political discourse, but we are in a proto-fascistic moment where forces of reaction — those who seek a national renewal based on a mythologized traditional and hierarchical society — are allied with a section of capital and are willing to use violence to achieve their aims.
Denying that the right mobilizes group hatred or apportioning blame across the political spectrum only lets the right off the hook for instigating violence.
The day after the Tucson shooting, the New York Times wrote, “extremism, antigovernment sentiment and even simple political passion at both ends of the ideological spectrum have created a climate promoting violence.” This false equivalence, prevalent throughout much of the “liberal media,” also gives cover to the right’s violent rhetoric because it can always claim the left is to blame as well. Right-wing pundits and politicians may briefly “tone it down,” even as they lament the bombast on the “other side,” but the hate will come back with a vengeance, just as it did after Oklahoma City. Does anyone seriously expect that Glenn Beck will forgo raking in tens of millions of dollars or Sarah Palin tens of millions of supporters just because of some mushy calls for civility and humility? As for Jared Loughner, he appears more deranged than political, though his ranting about a gold-backed currency, a “second” constitution and mind control through grammar are familiar right-wing paranoia. What more damning is how his intended target, Giffords, was a woman, in favor of the health care bill, opposed to Arizona’s racial profiling law and a Democrat. Every one of these groups and positions is frequently vilified by the mainstream right. (Plus, she is Jewish, one of the main obsessions of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist right.)
KNOW YOUR LEFT FROM YOUR RIGHT
The ideological roots of right-wing violence go back to the French Revolution, the birthplace of left and right and the conflict between those seeking a radically democratic and egalitarian society versus reactionaries, those desiring a society based on tradition and hierarchy. In the early 19th century, reactionaries favored the church, the king, the aristocracy and property; today they worship the free market, patriotism, Christianity, and class, white, male and heterosexual privileges. Over the last 50 years, the American right has mobilized group resentment based on these categories.
A second reason for a wake-up call is to dispense with the idiocy that the left and right are equivalent, which was the premise of Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” Sure, there are plenty of nutty leftists who believe the Bush administration carried out the 9-11 attacks, but none (or even all combined) have a smidgen of the power or influence of the hundreds of right-wing politicians and pundits who are birthers or call Obama a socialist. How about one example during the eight years of Bush and Cheney of a leftist carrying a gun at a Republican rally – where people were routinely arrested for the content of their t-shirts – unlike the dozen men who openly packed heat at an Obama rally in Arizona or the individual outside an Obama event in New Hampshire with a pistol strapped to his leg toting a sign threatening, “It is time to water the tree of Liberty”?
Likewise, there is no equivalency, as much as the right is trying to claim between an intemperate comment from a minor blogger on the Daily Kos and Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Cal Thomas and Michael Savage endlessly comparing Obama to Hitler, painting bleak visions of social collapse, fomenting revolution and calling on followers to “grab your guns.” It is no wonder that from 2008 to 2009 the number of conspiracist and anti-government Patriot groups soared from 149 to 512 and the number of militias from 42 to 127, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The right is largely uninterested in an honest appraisal of history. For one, it would have to confront the post-Columbus history of the Americas: the genocide of indigenous peoples, the millions of Africans who perished under chattel slavery, the pogroms against Asians, Mexicans and Blacks. David Neiwert, author of The Eliminationists, recaps much of this history from the deliberate extermination of Native peoples over nearly 400 years to the post-Civil War history of KKK terror, 1,322 documented lynchings from just 1890-1902, deadly ethnic cleansing of Black enclaves in Midwestern and Southern towns in the early 20th century, and the vicious white backlash in the civil rights era. Neiwert also writes of little-known instances of anti-Asian violence in the late 19th century that preceded the internment of some 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
Neiwert argues these are all examples of “eliminationism” — “a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.” He adds, “Eliminationism has become an endemic feature of modern movement conservatism …. It shows itself as an unwillingness to argue the facts or merits of issues and to demand outright the suppression or violent oppression (and ultimately the purgation) of elements deemed harmful to American society.”
Ground zero for eliminationist rhetoric is the right-wing media, where comments about “poisoning Pelosi,” fantasizing about “killing Michael Moore,” telling listeners they should “shoot … dead” 9-11 conspiracy theorists, “don’t kill all the liberals, leave … two on every campus …” pass for daily content.
Right-wing pundits also love to battle over the interpretation of atrocities committed throughout U.S. history, and one can usually find the right justifying, sanitizing or denying them. A small sampling includes Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Haley Barbour fondly remembering the Citizens Councils, which were the white-collar Klan in the 1950s. Rush Limbaugh downplaying the genocide of Native Americans asking, where are the white man’s reparations for being introduced to tobacco? Glenn Beck invoking the internment of Japanese-Americans in warning that Muslims will be put behind “razor wire” if they aren’t “the first ones in the recruitment office lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head.” And Republican governors issuing proclamations marking April as “Confederate History Month” while declining to mention slavery, the sole cause of the Civil War. The right’s denial of atrocities over hundreds of years of history is matched by its denial of the political violence over the last two.
The eliminationist rhetoric is made real within a culture that glorifies guns. Need we be reminded how gun stores reported a doubling or tripling of sales right after Obama’s 2008 election? The right-wing violence that followed was easily predictable. The Department of Homeland Security’s April 2009 rather tepid report on “Right-Wing Extremism” described how the threat of “violent attacks” was increasing due to “the prolonged economic downturn,” “the election of the first African American president,” the possibility of firearms restrictions and the recruitment of returning military vets by right-wing extremists.
The report, which DHS quickly retracted under pressure from the right, concluded “lone wolf extremists” in particular posed a grave danger and came chillingly true with at least four separate cases of political murders from April to July of 2009. These killings were an overture to the town-hall rage during the healthcare debate in the summer of 2009 and occurred as the Secret Service was overwhelmed by nearly 1,000 death threats a month against Obama.
There is a third reason why the Arizona massacre should be a wake-up call. The right’s response showcases the shopworn tactics it uses to avoid responsibility. Top of the list is for politicians to declaim cultivating an atmosphere of violence. Palin’s crosshairs on Giffords were just “a surveyor’s symbol,” and don’t mention her “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!” tweet following passage of the healthcare bill last March and the subsequent rash of violence and threats against at least four of Palin’s targets, including Giffords. Ignore how Giffords’ opponent staged a “target for victory” campaign event to “remove” her from office while offering constituents a chance to fire a “fully automatic M16.” Conveniently forget about Michele Bachmann telling her constituents to be “armed and dangerous,” Michael Steele calling for Nancy Pelosi to be put on the “firing line,” Sharron Angle suggesting “Second Amendment remedies.”
Another tactic is to obfuscate how the perpetrators of violence are tied to the right by painting them as leftists no matter how thin the evidence. If that doesn’t work try playing the victim, such as Erick Erickson did, by writing that “by perpetuating the lie … that the right and the Tea Party incited this evil act, the left and media may very well incite violence against the right.” Claim the alleged killer was “a disturbed individual whose act cannot be explained by relating it to politics or any rational motive.” If all else fails, decry “the politicization of tragedy.”
If anything, the tragedy was the result of the reactionary right’s politics of demonizing the other. The time has come to attack the right, not with guns, but with words and ideas to expose its destructive and deadly politics for what it is.
A version of this article was originally published on AlterNet.
You Can’t Tell Your Right-Wing Killer Without a Scorecard
July 27, 2008
Unemployed truck driver Jim Adkisson kills two and wounds seven in a shotgun attack on the congregation of a Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee. Adkisson terms his actions a “symbolic killing” and “political protest.” In his intended suicide note he writes, “I realized I could engage the terrorists allies in Americas … The Democrats! … Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House.
Dec. 9, 2008
FBI teams investigating the murder of white supremacist James Cumming, 29, a resident of Belfast, Maine, find supplies for a crude radiological dispersal device and other explosives in his home. Cumming’s wife, who shot him to death after being abused by him repeatedly, explains, “His intentions were to construct a dirty bomb and take it to Washington to kill President Obama. He was planning to hide it in the undercarriage of our moter home.”
Jan. 21, 2009
The day after Obama is inaugurated, 22-year-old white supremacist and Brockton, Massachusetts resident Keith Luke kills a 20-year-old Cape Verdean woman, shoots and rapes her sister, and kills 72-year-old Arlindo DePina Goncalves, also from Cape Verde. Lukes’ stated intention was to “kill as many Jews as possible” at a local synagogue before committing suicide.
April 4, 2009
Neo-Nazi Richard Poplawski shoots and kills three police officers responding to a 911 call to his home in Pittsburgh. His friend Edward Perkovic tells reporters that Poplawski feared “the Obama gun ban that’s on its way” and “didn’t like our rights being infringed upon.”
April 7, 2009
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis releases an assessment of right-wing extremism in the United States.
April 19, 2009
The Oath Keepers, an anti-government group made up of current and former law enforcement and military personnel, holds its first “muster” in Lexington, Massachusetts. The groups’ members pledge to disobey 10 different orders that they deem “unconstitutional” and “immoral,” the first of which reads, “We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people.”
April 25, 2009
Joshua Cartwright, a member of the Florida National Guard, shoots and kills two Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputies and is killed in an ensuing gun battle with police. Cartwright’s wife says he was “severely disturbed” by Obama’s election, and the county sheriff states that Cartwright was “interested in militia groups and weapons training.”
May 30, 2009
Shawna Forde and members of her Minutemen American Defense invade the home of 29-year-old Raul Flores in Pima County, Arizona. In search of drugs and cash to fund their militia, they kill him and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia and wound his wife. Forde’s brother Merrill Metzger said, “She was talking about starting a revolution against the United States government,” and was recruiting members of the Aryan Nations.
May 31, 2009
Scott P. Roeder executes abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his Wichita, Kansas church. In 1993 Tiller had been shot in both arms by another anti-abortion extremist. Roeder was a member of the Montana Freemen, an anti-government, white sepa¬ratist group that engaged in an 81-day standoff with the FBI in 1996.
June 10, 2009
James W. von Brunn, a “hardcore Neo-Nazi,” shoots and kills a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Von Brunn believed that Western civilization was going to be replaced with a “One World Illuminati Government” that would “confiscate private weapons” in order to accomplish its goals.
July 13, 2009
Gilbert Ortez, Jr. kills a police deputy in Chambers County, Texas, with an assault rifle. Searching Ortez’s mobile home, police find more than 100 explosive devices, Nazi drawings and extremist literature, and several additional firearms.
Oct. 18, 2009
The Secret Service is reportedly “under strain” as threat against Obama increase by 400 percent over his predecessor, according to Ronald Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service.
Feb., 18, 2010
Andrew Joseph Stack flies a single-engine plane into an Austin, Texas, office building containing nearly 200 IRS employees, killing one and wounding 13. Mixing left and right-wing populism, Stack’s writes in his suicide note that “violence … is the only answer,” and describes “The capitalist creed” as “From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.”
March 4, 2010
An anti-government, 9-11 conspiracist, John Patrick Bedell travels from California to Arlington, Virginia, where he opens fire with a handgun at an entrance to the Pentagon. He shoots and wounds two security guards before being shot and killed himself.
March 29, 2010
Nine members of the Michigan-based “Hutaree” Christian militia are arrested for plotting to kill a law enforcement officer and then detonate improvised explosive devices during the officer’s funeral procession. The group targeted federal officials, members of the law enforcement “brotherhood” and other participants in the “New World Order.”
May 20, 2010
Jerry Kane, Jr., 45, and his son Joseph Kane, 16, fatally shoot two Arkansas police officers with AK-47 assault rifles during a routine traffic stop on Interstate 40 in West Memphis. The Kanes are killed during an exchange of gunfire with police in a Wal-Mart parking lot 90 minutes later. Jerry Kane, an Ohio resident and anti-government activist, considered himself a “sovereign citizen” and ran a business that centered on debt-avoidance scams.
July 18, 2010
After Glenn Beck denounces the progressive Tides Foundation on 29 separate shows, 45-year-old Byron Williams plots “to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU.” Before reaching his target, Williams is stopped by police and surrenders after a 12-minute gun battle on an Oakland freeway. His mother says her son was angry at “left-wing politicians” and upset by “the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items.”
Jan. 8, 2011
Jared Lee Loughner, 22, shoots U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in the head at a “Congress in Your Corner” event at a Safeway supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. He kills six, including federal judge John Roll, and wounds 14, including Giffords.