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Tucson: Is this an Oklahoma City moment?

Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director, Center for Right-Wing Studies | January 10, 2011

There is a striking parallel between the years 2009 and 1993.  In both, a Democrat becoming president of the United States coincided with a startling rise of radicalism on the political right.

In 1993 the face of right radicalism was the militia movement. With Bill Clinton in office paramilitary insurrectionists found their numbers expanding and their presence in the national political debate accorded novel legitimacy. Militia leaders appeared as talking heads on cable news networks and commanded “understanding” from right-wing Republican office holders.

In April 1995, militia members, hoping to set off a general paramilitary insurrection, blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Responsibility for the attack was quickly established and the militia movement returned to the fringes of American scene. No more militia talking heads. No more Republican understanding.

In 2009, with Barack Obama coming into office, and continuing to today, the new face of right-wing radicalism has been the Tea Party, a movement that enjoys the active support of a national television network, and which is contending for domination inside the Republican Party.

While the Tea Party is a far cry from the militia movement, there has been no shortage of insurrectionary rhetoric from it or, for that matter, from Fox News and, in particular, Glenn Beck, since the accession of Barack Obama to the presidency. Americans have become used to talk of “second amendment solutions”, displays of weaponry at political events, vehement disruption of meetings from town halls to the U.S. Congress, among much else since the Sarah Palin vice-presidential candidacy of 2008.

The murders and attempted assassination this weekend in Tucson have thrown this heated rhetoric into question—what is the connection between the rhetoric and the violence? From the right, the answer seems to be: none at all. And further, that raising this question in the first place is an attempt to muzzle the right. William Kristol calls it “McCarthyism.”

From the left, the dominant conviction is that the rhetoric, and the failure of Republican Party officials to denounce it, has created a climate that makes this sort of violence inevitable. Never mind, as the right argues, that the would-be assassin seems clearly crazy. The climate of intimidation and threat of violence is just the thing that pushes such a mind over the edge.

For the Republicans, or the Tea Party, or Fox, this argument is anathema. To accept it in any manner is to concede the premise that something has been amiss, that some foul genie has been loosed, on the right.

Locally, we’ve had a near-miss on this score. Last July, Byron Williams, in body armor, engaged Oakland police in a furious freeway gun battle as he was stopped on his way to San Francisco to shoot up the offices and kill leading members of the ACLU and the Tides Foundation. He has been explicit about learning of Tides from the blackboard of Glenn Beck. Yet nothing in this incident has had any impact on the rhetoric of either Beck or the right generally.

The ability of the right to escape responsibility or consequences for Byron Williams foreshadows the likely impact—or, better, lack of impact—of the events of Tucson. Unlike in the case of Oklahoma City, where the perpetrator was explicit in his insurrectionary aim and managed to pull off his catastrophe, in Tucson there is enough ambiguity about the perpetrator that radicalism on the right is unlikely to feel the need to abate. In the absence of, as it were, a smoking gun—the perpetrator himself assuming responsibility in the name of the movement—the impact of Tucson is likely to be an amplification rather than any amelioration of the fierceness of our political climate.

Comments to “Tucson: Is this an Oklahoma City moment?

  1. The original post needs to be updated in light of the recent video production “A Noble Lie”, an analysis of the evidence in the OKC bombing case. Remember there were unresolved questions from the start–whatever happened to “John Doe #2”?–and many peculiarities, some of which were documented by McVeigh’s own lawyer, who has always maintained there was a wider conspiracy. Some of this actually made in onto the corporate media, Tom Jarrel’s report on ABC that featured video from the morning of the bombing with ATF agents frantically searching through the bushes with the bomb disposal unit in tow; later upon the occasion of McVeigh’s execution Dan Rather interviewed a panel of 5 FBI agents who said evidence had been withheld in the case.

    Are people who don’t believe what government commissions said about JFK/MLK/OKC/Flight 800/9-11 supposed to be “left wing” or “right wing”?
    I see earlier this year KPFA was actually offering “A Noble Lie” as part of one of their fund drives, alas there seems to have been no follow-up discussion of the matter. Perhaps Noam Chomsky disapproved (he believes in the Warren Commission report).

  2. You may want to temper your rhetoric. The week-long drumbeat to paint the Tea Party as somehow complicit in Giffords shooting has resulted in the following:

    “The self-described liberal and military veteran became distraught Saturday and began ranting at the end of a televised town hall meeting about the shooting. He took a picture of Tucson Tea Party co-founder Trent Humphries and yelled, “You’re dead” before calling others in the church a bunch of “whores,” authorities said.”

    Read more here.

  3. It is unfortunate that some want to use this tragedy to promote agendas and silence critics. The Cal chancellor’s statement on the matter was inappropriate.

  4. “Militia members” did not blow up the Murrah builing. Planting the falsehood that they did in the public consciousness was one of the triumphs of Clinton’s “Oklahoma City moment.”

    I can see your successor, at this or some similarly-named think tank in 2025, blithely writing (without doing any fact-checking whatever of how “Gabrielle Giffords was shot by Tea Partiers.”

  5. Interesting remarks although it is my humble non-academic opinion that aside from any medical/mental issues surrounding this atrocity the action is endemic of a society and culture that sends mixed messages on a regular basis.

    When I moved to Tucson and went to open a bank account a friend said, “Don’t freak when you see a biker in front of you in line smoking a ciggy and a Colt 45 (not a beer) under his belt, both are legal here. Then there was the friend who took long bicycle rides among the Saguaros for pleasure and kept a GLOCK at her hip to detract the attention desert rats paid to her from the back of dirty pickup trucks.

    To attempt quantifying what has happened in the subculture of Tucson, AZ by UCB standards would be like attempting to ascribe 21st C. mores & ethics to the writing of Billy Shakespeare.

    It is tragic, it is disgusting, it is insanity, but it is topographical as surely as it has affected the entire Nation. I do not believe finger pointing and arming ourselves to the teeth is the road to healing a Nation in shock.

    Just Sayin’

  6. From James Fallows: “The Committee to Stop Gun Violence has prepared this compendium of sources of ‘violent’ or ‘insurrectionist’ political rhetoric in the past two and a half years. Let’s stipulate that there could have been a tilt, conscious or unconscious, in selection of items for the list. Still, it is stunning in its totality. It… is also hard to imagine coming up with a comparable list from ‘the other side.'”

  7. Loughner’s favorite band was Anti-Flag, a far-left/socialist/anarchist highly political musical group.

    His favorite book was the Communist Manifesto.

    He first promised he would kill Rep. Giffords starting back in 2007 — two years before the Tea Party even emerged.

    There is no evidence he has listened to, followed, shared any values with, or even knew the existence of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc.

    He was described by all his classmates as a “far-left liberal.”

    He hung out with left-wing anarchists.

    And despite all this evidence (and much more), the liberal pundits instantly and overwhelmingly pinned the blame for the shooting on the conservative movement in the US.

    “The Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements” is not an academic institution, just a partisan hit-piece think tank masquerading as something intellectual.

  8. Let’s remember Loughner shot liberals, not conservatives or even independents!

    As for the evidence his internet postings offer of his mentality and world-view: paramount is paranoia about the federal government, which he suggests has been taken over by “revolutionaries,” menacing among other things citizens’ property rights. His obsession with currency is not merely grammatical, but is clearly linked with rejection of the legitimacy of taxes and the currency in which they are presently paid. His anxiety about governmental mind control, though it connects to a large 20th-century literature on totalitarianism in general, fits easily into the picture of a right-wing American paranoid. He does not shrink from calling himself a “terrorist.”

    • A nine year old girl is a liberal? I also heard the judge was a Republican. This is what I am talking, the left’s far fetched and inaccurate attempt to portray this as a problem coming from conservatives. Loughner so far has shown no associations or influence by anyone on the right. Like the attempt to smear the US Chamber of Commerce, this too will be shown to have no factual basis. This really illustrates to me that because the left cannot be convincing on a purely intellectual basis they consistently resort to personal attacks. I personally would reserver judgement until all the facts are in but it would appear that Loughner was already off and his drug and alcohol abuse drove him over the edge. The bottom line here is that the Left is going to try use to their advantage somehow, which is actually shameful in light of the true facts.

    • “Loughner shot liberals, not conservatives”

      Actually, Giffords was a conservative Democrat — a Blue Dog. So much so that the progressive blogger who first linked to Sarah Palin’s ‘target’ map with Giffords’s district on it, and made that “Mission Accomplished” comment, turns out to have also had Giffords on a ‘target list’ of his own which he’d published on his own blog.

  9. Loughner has been described as a liberal, fan of the communist manifesto, a pothead and an alcoholic. He was an independent and did not vote in 2010 according to ione source. Loughner was influenced by any right wingers. By your own logic we should now ban independents, liberals, pot and alchemical. Also, your dismal attempt at historical revision is too easily refuted. The Murrah bombing was a reaction to Clinton’s administration violence at Ruby Ridge and Waco. During the Bush adminstration there was no end of hatred, vitriol and senseless personal attacks from the left. Where was the condemnation? There was a book and a movie that talked about his assassination. Where was the condemnation of this from the left? Every night you had Olbermann and Mathews spewing hate fueled idiocy against the Bush administration. Silence from the left on that. Rove and Cheney were regularly defamed and Scooter Libby was the victim of a witch hunt. Nothing from the left about that either. Obama himselt, who was supposed to be a transformation figure said himself if someone brings a knife he’ll bring a gun. Since liberals cannot defeat conservatives on an intellectual basis they regularly resort to lies, distortion, smears, historical revisionism. Professor Reich himself said the goal was to frame the debate, in other words to rig the debate, not to actually win it by providing evidence and supporting it. It was easy to see that Liberals would use Loughner to try and silence the right but unfortunately for them Loughner proved to be someone that was not influenced by conservatism in any way at all. But that does not matter to historical revisionists, what only matters to them is that they cannot miss an opportunity to smear conservatism.

    • Pardon the typo, Loughner was definitely not influenced by any right wingers. I need to improve my proof reading skills.

  10. to @James_R: the taxpayers no longer fund public universities in California, so what do you care what we study?

  11. This is the first I ever heard of the “Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements.” I better look into the legality of public universities using taxpayer funds to host politically one-sided, clearly bogus study centers.

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