Savage act in polarised country

Jared Loughner, the suspect in Saturday’s shooting spree in Arizona which killed six people and critically wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was not working alone. True, the rampage apparently emerged from his confused, unstable and troubled mind. But it was also the by-product of a polarised political culture underpinned by increasingly vitriolic, violent and vituperative rhetoric and symbolism. Fights outside town hall meetings, guns outside rallies, Facebook pages calling for assassinations, discussions about the most propitious moment for armed insurrection. In late October I asked a man in the quaint town of Salida, Colorado, if President Barack Obama had done anything worthwhile. “Well he’s increased the guns and ammunitions industry exponentially,” he said. “My friends are stockpiling.” To dismiss these as the voices of the marginal was to miss the point and misunderstand the trend. America is more polarised under Mr. Obama than it has been in four decades: the week he was elected gun sales leapt 50 per cent year on year.
Where the right is concerned the marginal and the mainstream have rapidly become blurred. Neither the Tea Party nor Mr. Obama created these divisions. But over the past two years they have intensified to an alarming degree. Polls last year revealed that a majority of Republicans believe Mr. Obama is a Muslim and a socialist while two-thirds of Republicans either believe or are not sure that the President is “a racist who hates white people”. In this alternative reality armed response becomes, if not logical, then at least debatable. After all, if Mr. Obama truly were a foreign-born, white-hating terrorist sympathiser who has usurped the presidency, drastic action would make sense. One anti-Obama campaigner carried a placard saying, “It is time to water the tree of liberty” — a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” In few places was the national atmosphere played out more dramatically than in the border state of Arizona. In April Raul Grijalva, in Gabrielle Giffords’s adjacent constituency, faced bomb threats for opposing a new anti-immigration law. In August, Ms Giffords called police after a man dropped a gun at an event similar to the one she attended on Saturday. A few months ago Sarah Palin, targeting Ms Giffords’s marginal constituency, put the seat in crosshairs, and encouraged supporters to “reload and take aim”.
The connection between this rhetoric and Saturday’s events are not causal but contextual. The shooter was not likely to be acting under direct instructions but in an atmosphere that made such an attack more likely rather than less.
In April 2009 a homeland security report on right-wing extremism concluded: “The economic downturn and the election of the first African-American President present unique drivers for right-wing radicalisation and recruitment.” As Ms Giffords struggles for her life and the country mourns its dead some insist it is too soon to draw broader political conclusions from this tragedy. But if those conclusions had been understood sooner, it is possible that such a tragedy might have been prevented.
— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011