Sarah, Jared and the T-Word
Could it be, in this marvelous melting pot we call “The United States of America,” that one’s religion or ethnicity can make all the difference between being labeled a charismatic politician or a media celebrity versus, say, a domestic terrorist?
Defining the T-Word
To a layman, the definition seems fairly clear-cut. According to the U.S.A. Patriot Act of 2001, under Section 802, titled, “Definition of domestic terrorism”:
(5) the term `domestic terrorism’ means activities that–
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended–
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
NOTE: Regarding description (A) in the above, it is a violation of the U.S. Code to incite insurrection or to advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence.
From what little we know of Jared Loughner, it appears that he doesn’t fit the definition of a domestic terrorist. Nor does it appear that he was involved in inciting insurrection or advocating the overthrow of the government.
It appears that Jared Loughner is, indeed, a profoundly disturbed individual who acted alone. This finding no doubt elicited a huge (albeit private) sigh of relief among the other players in the headlines — Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann and the rest of the tea bag party, not to mention the bulk of the Republican Party, which has benefited so richly from the tea party rhetoric. Having figuratively dodged the bullet, these folk were then free to wage a campaign of self-righteous indignation against those who suggested that they may have served as conduits to the tragedy, given the climate of lawlessness, hatred and violence they’ve been promoting for the past two years.
In the immediate wake of the Tucson shootings, there was a call for civility. Given the enormity of the national pain and grieving from the tragedy, such a call seemed almost superfluous. After all, who could be so crass, so brazen, so callous and heartless that they needed reminding to stop the political theater and take a break from the ugly words. Still — for those who did need reminding — there was that verbal call for civility. Surely no one would breach this, much less commit more violence.
Yet, within just three weeks of the tragedy, Sarah Palin threw the words, “blood libel” onto the table; Glenn Beck accused progressive Democrats of trying to “destroy” God; Michele Bachmann compared the tea bag party’s battle against Obama to the “perilous” battle of the marines at Iwo Jima to “beat back a totalitarian aggressor”; and in Spokane, Washington, a bomb was planted at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade. I could easily site a dozen more.
While the media have floated the bombing attempt as a “possible hate crime,” the FBI has accurately termed it as a case of domestic terrorism, which makes the dearth of news coverage perplexing compared to, say, the Time Square incident, which received a full court media circus.
Less perplexing is the statement by Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who says that her department’s Central Intelligence Unit has reported an increase in hate literature and other white supremacist activity over the past two years. Two years? Interesting. This is the sort of information we should be scrutinizing, if we hope to prevent such attacks in the future. What is past is prologue.
It is at least a sign of progress that the Spokane bombing attempt — which was designed to inflict mass casualty of innocent men, women and children — has been labeled an act of domestic terrorism. True progress will come when the folk who incite such acts — no matter what their race, religion or ethnicity — are also called to task. Of course, after Sarah’s “blood libel” defense last week, it’s unlikely that the media or anyone else will be mentioning her name in the same sentence as the word “Spokane” any time soon.
No one ever accused Gov. George Wallace of throwing a bomb, but he was nonetheless widely blamed for creating the violent landscape in which the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham occurred in 1963, killing four innocent children and injured 22 others — and which occurred just one week after Wallace told the New York Times that, to stop integration, Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.”
Wallace was asked, 23 years later, to comment on the blame he’d been assigned by so many at the time — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d wired Wallace the day after the murders, “Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” To this, Wallace replied:
“I had never made any statement, and you can look at any statement I have made, I’ve always said that God made us all and he loves us all and anyone who attempts to harm the hair on another man’s head in this matter is not on our side. I did not ever use any provocative, a, talk about civil right, I never talked provocative about Dr. King or anyone of that sort…. I spoke my vehemently against the federal government, not against people. I talked about the, the government of the United States and the Supreme Court. I never expressed in any language that would upset anyone about a persons race…. I don’t believe in a big strong federal government, I don’t believe in taking too many rights away from the people, same thing I always said…” George Wallace, in a 1986 interview
In the wake of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, there was a nationwide call for civility, much like the call we’ve heard in the wake of the tragedy in Tuscon. One such call came from Wisconsin, where the editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote a piece titled, “Nation’s Shame,” which read, in part:
“For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should also serve to goad the conscience. The deaths [of the four children] in a sense are on the hands of each of us. They can only be atoned for by having everybody on all sides resolve to continue on in the search for human dignity.”
Two months later, George Wallace traveled to Dallas, Texas, arriving a few days before John F. Kennedy, about whom he’d recently said, “The President wants us to surrender this state [Alabama] to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-Communists who have instituted these demonstrations.”
Wallace’s agenda in Dallas during that fateful week in November 1963 was twofold: to reinforce his segregationist platform, in case anyone doubted it, and to announce his intention to challenge Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination in 1964.
Again, George Wallace was never accused of throwing a bomb or pulling a trigger, nor were Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle or Glenn Beck. By the same token, Osama bin Laden did not personally fly two jets full of passengers into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck
What if, instead of being white-skinned, Jared Loughner were an American of Arab descent? Or a Muslim? Would the first headlines after the Tucson tragedy have echoed the first headlines we saw after the Fort Hood tragedy, labeling the attacker — a man who was, like Jared, a profoundly disturbed individual who acted alone — a domestic terrorist, with some calling the Fort Hood tragedy America’s “mini 9-11″?
And what if the other players (e.g. Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh) were Muslims or Americans of Arab descent? More to the point, what is the net difference between this ilk of American politician/media celebrity versus, say, Islamic extremist, Anwar al-Awlaki, who officials quickly fingered as a conduit to the Fort Hood shootings, for preaching his “hateful ideology directed at inciting violence against the United States”?
We, as a country, seem to take comfort in the idea that bogeymen are a breed of people easily recognized by their color or religion. But history teaches us that the bad guys who’ve run amok on American soil promoting lawlessness, violence, terror and tyranny against the citizenry have nearly always been white and toted a King James under their arms.
At any point in this history, we, as a country, could have drawn enduring lessons from the most violent chapters in our past. But it doesn’t seem to be in our nature to do so, even when the lessons are spoon-fed to us, as they were in the Jim Crow lynching era, the McCarthy era, and in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing, which was followed just two months later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which was followed five years later by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was followed just two months later by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
We’ve come close a few times. In the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, civil rights legislation was finally passed to mandate an end to segregation — granting equal access to the ballot box, equal rights to housing and equal access to public places, among other things. And likely none of this would have taken place, had ordinary citizens not spent the previous decade taking to the streets in non-violent protest — laying their lives on the line as they were variously arrested, beaten, lynched, shot at and bombed by a concert of law enforcement, the KKK and ordinary citizens, whose vision of democracy paid respect to the bullet over the ballot.
But even after civil rights legislation was passed, it would be still be years of non-violent protest before these rights trickled down to all citizens in the South. Indeed, it was a full 15 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision before all school systems in the South were finally integrated. The lessons from these years, while they may be self-evident, were never really learned.
We came close to another teachable moment in the wake of 9-11, however, instead of serving to protect Americans from terrorists, the U.S.A. Patriot Act was used as a tool protect our leaders from accountability for the campaign of lawlessness, violence and tyranny they were about to undertake.
In the wake of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, national and international laws and treaties were broken; the Constitution and Bill of Rights were dismantled and, with them, went the constitutional rights of each and every American citizen. We were taken into two illegal wars that bled our national treasure dry and continue, still, to drive our economy into deeper destitution.
Nary a pip was heard from the fiscally conservative right, nor from the constitutional conservatives. And if the “taxed enough already” bag party noticed the alarming rise in the tab on their grandchildren’s futures, or the rising rates of unemployment and home foreclosures, they certainly didn’t think enough of it to take to the streets in armed protest until the fall of 2008.
Also in the wake of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, bogeymen around the world were herded up like cattle — based not on their actual words or deeds, but on the color of their skin, their religion their ethnicity — then tortured into making confessions and left to indefinitely rot in illegal prisons.
This was not our first trip to the proverbial rodeo. But my point here is not to take a trip down the Trail of Tears into our country’s history with ethnic cleansing, genocide, slavery, lynching, segregation, oppression, internment camps, torture and illegal detentions, even as the root causes for these are the same root causes that compel modern-day politicians, media celebrities and their followers to threaten assassinations, “second-amendment remedies” and other brands of terrorism against their political opponents.
Palling Around with Terrorists
Historically, assassinations and other second-amendment remedies do not occur without warning. The rhetoric during the Kennedy years was remarkably similar to the rhetoric 100 years earlier, in Lincoln’s day, which is remarkably similar to the rhetoric we heard in the years before Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, which is remarkably similar to the rhetoric we’ve been hearing ever since Obama became a serious contender for the presidency — and most especially since the fall of 2008, when Sarah Palin arrived on the scene.
It started out innocently enough, beginning with her first speech on the national stage:
“And a writer observed, ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity,’ and I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind…. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.“ — Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Sept. 3, 2008
The writer to whom Sarah referred was none other than Westbrook Pegler — the racist, anti-semitic, pseudo-populist journalist/writer who openly wished for the assassinations of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
While many decried Sarah’s reference to Westwood Pegler, there were some whose ears perked up at the sound of that dog whistle. For those who missed that first, tentative bleat of the dog whistle, they caught it by the second or third try. Within a month of her first speech, Sarah Palin had escalated the rhetoric from labeling Obama as an ivory tower academic elitist to painting him as a socialist, Muslim, pro-terrorist, anti-American. Absent from the list was the n-word, which her crowds soon added to the list.
As the heat of her rhetoric grew, so did the size of her crowds. Palin’s response, or lack thereof, to the violent calls from her supporters left no doubt that it was safe to say outrageous things — even calling for the death of Obama — in her presence:
“Off with his head!”
“He’s an Arab!”
Such calls quickly became a staple item at McCain-Palin rallies, where neither candidate saw fit to moderate the language and, instead, allowed the rhetoric to escalate, without comment. For her part, Sarah kept raising the heat:
This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America. We see America as the greatest force for good in this world…. Our opponent, though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country. — Sarah Palin, October 4, 2008
Early into her campaign, she was called upon to tone down the incendiary rhetoric — just as she and others who have since joined the chorus have been called to do in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shootings. One particularly eloquent call for civility came from Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — a man who literally put his life on the line during the Civil Right era:
“As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.
During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.
As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.”
Rather than consider the weight of the congressman’s words, McCain & Palin took it as a personal attack. Rather than consider their responsibility in the tone that had overtaken our national dialogue, McCain-Palin used their response to Rep. Lewis as an opportunity to issue yet another bleat of their dog whistle. Herein, they gave a firm wink to the “thousands of hardworking Americans” to signal that the language they’d been using at McCain-Palin rallies was not only still welcome, but downright American.
Congressman John Lewis’ comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama’s record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign.
I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I’ve always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track.
And so the “debate” has continued for two years and counting. Whenever similar voices of reason have been raised to protest the violent rhetoric on the right, they’ve been drowned out with cries about liberal, socialist, communist democrats trying to stifle free speech and put their boot-heel on the neck of our democracy.
For their part, the media, in the interest of “balance,” has served as the bully pulpit for the violent rhetoric, while simultaneously parroting the talking point that the rhetoric on the left is just as violent as the rhetoric on the right.
In the wake of the violent campaign season of 2008, death threats were issued against the president, effigies were burned, and KKK membership soared to its highest numbers in decades.
But it was during the summer of 2009 health care wars when the rhetoric took a decidedly darker turn under the renewed leadership of Sarah — who had since resigned her governorship, so that she could begin laying the groundwork for her 2012 presidential run. By then, such rhetoric had become the native tongue of the Republican party, which now encompassed the tea bag party of citizens who took to the streets carrying guns — or photos and crude drawings of guns — their signs smattered with threats of violence against the entire Democratic party — all of whom were now accused of being socialists, communists and fascists with an agenda to install death panels.
The language continued from the summer of 2009, through the bill’s signing in March 2010, then into the campaign season in the fall of 2010, and into the present:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.” — Sarah warns her followers of Obama’s Nazi-style health care plan on her Facebook page on August 7, 2009. This statement earned her the “Lie of the Year,” award by the St. Petersburg Times, home of Politifact, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2009 for its work in political fact-checking.
Editor’s note: It’s interesting to compare the similarities between the above prediction and one made 46 years earlier by George Wallace — a prediction that never came true, even as many people fervently believed it would: “This civil rights bill will wind up putting a homeowner in jail because he doesn’t sell his home to someone that some bureaucrat thinks he ought to sell it to.“
This cannot pass. What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this doesn’t pass. — Rep. Michele Bachmann railing against the dangers of health care reform during an Independence Institute fundraiser in Denver on August 31, 2009
Well, I qualified for my CCW [permit to carry a concealed weapon] with a Dirty Harry cannon, so maybe that tells you a little bit. But, you know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies. They’re saying, ‘My goodness what can we do to turn this country around’ and I’ll tell ya, the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.” — Sharron Angle in a conservative talk radio interview, January 14, 2010
“Break their windows. Break them NOW. We can break their windows Before we have to resort to rifles to resist their “well-intentioned” tyranny. … The time has come to take your life, your liberty and that of your children and grandchildren into your own two hands and ACT. It is, after all, more human than shooting them in self-defense. And if we do a proper job, if we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary.” –Excerpt from Mike Vanderboegh’s missive to “All Modern Sons of Liberty,” to break the windows of Democrat headquarters and offices during the week the health care bill was due to be signed into law. In the wake, windows and doors were smashed across the country. Vanderboegh’s missive was posted on March 19, 2010, just two days before the door and window of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s Tucson office were smashed by vandals.
“We are 3 percent of American gun owners. That‘s the muzzles of 3 million rifles who can be, if required, pointed directly at the hearts of anyone who wants to be a tyrant in this country.” — A byline posted on the website of Mike Venderboegh — a man who, interestingly enough, lives off the government dole with his monthly SSI checks and also enjoys the “well-intentioned tyranny” of government-run Medicare.
Commonsense Conservatives and lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!” Pls see my Facebook page. — Sarah Palin’s twitter on March 23, 2010, the same day that Obama signed the health care bill into law. Fans who visited her Facebook page arrived to find a rifle-scope map (below), with Gabrielle Gifford’s district in the #4 slot on Sarah’s list.
Ya’ll don’t need to worry about getting re-elected on November. But you’d better be moving out of GA (whole and all) before November because ya’ll getting what’s coming for ya. SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS.” — Anonymous letter received by Rep. David Scott of Georgia, addressed to “David Scott & Family,” March 29, 2010 The phrase, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” was famously shouted by John Wilkes Booth as he assassinated President Lincoln. This phrase has more recently been adopted by some in the tea party movement. While these words are often translated as “death to the tyrant,” the literal translation is, “Thus always to tyrants.” Similar language was used in the threats issued to Democrats across the country in the wake of the health care bill.
David Scott, you’re nothing but a nigger. None of your colored constituents are going to be able to save you because we don’t want this socialized Obamacare you’re pushing because you Negroes are too lazy to take care of yourselves. — Another anonymous, March 2010 letter sent to Rep. David Scott of Georgia, the last words of which strike at the heart of the real reason citizens took to the streets in arms against health care reform.
It is a special irony that the racial component of health care reform was manufactured by the corporations and their paid political footmen, whose profit margins were threatened by health care reform. Like most tea baggers, the writers of the above letters were clueless to how easily and shamelessly their strings were pulled by corporate America, which spent many millions of dollars on a slick campaign to paint health care reform as the new welfare, to equate the Democratic Party with the Nazi Party, and to bankroll the necessary speakers to deliver these messages to America, to scare as many people as possible into believing that they were embroiled in a life-and-death struggle against the evil Democrats and their death panels.
And when the bill was finally signed, and the dire warning about death panels proved false, the health care bill was then morphed from being a baby-and-grandma killer to being a job killer. The talking points may have changed just a bit to suit the scenery, but the message is still the same: They’re trying to kill us!
The terror induced by these messages has been matched only by the urgency of the remedy proposed by the tea bag party that was spawned from this slick corporate campaign: Rise up, ye patriotic Americans! Take up arms to protect yourselves, your children and grandmaw from the communists! The socialists! The elitists! The scientists! The anti-Americans! The death panels! Get your guns and get your ammo before it too late! Save yourselves from the tyranny of your own government! Water that tree of liberty with the blood of the tyrant!
The tea bag party, like Timothy McVeigh, have presumed much by removing Jefferson’s quote out of context and then embracing it as the slogan for their cause — beginning with the presumption that they even remotely understand what Jefferson was talking about. Better the tea bag party should learn the history and politics surrounding Shay’s Rebellion, then return to Jefferson’s letter and actually read the thing — word for word, line by line — in its entirety. Only then might they glimpse the sublime irony that a group of people bereft of the historical facts would take Jefferson’s words out of context, make a lie of them, and then repeat the phrase ad nauseam to somehow legitimize their threats of assassination and insurrection.
This would all be silly if not for the fact that these folk genuinely believe they are standing on the shoulders of our country’s founders, and that these founders are somehow cheering them on in their cause. The Joe Wilson “You Lie” machine gun receiver offered for sale in January 2011, just before the Tucson massacre, is but one of many souvenirs we can add to the roster of blatant calls we’ve seen over the past two years to commit violence against the Democratic party, in general, and the president in particular.
Again, we’ve been to this rodeo before. We know that, once the bombs have been thrown, the guns fired and the innocents killed, folk like Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck and all those who flock to their message can always claim, the same way Gov. George Wallace did after his call for a “few first-class funerals”: “We never, ever, ever intended….”
Still further down the road, some 50 years, we can look back, shake our heads in disbelief and wonder: How did so many people become so deluded?
“Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!”
In both Kennedy’s and Lincoln’s day, patriotic, God-fearing Americans were called to take up arms against a federal government accused of overstepping its bounds with (take your pick) slavery/integration — issues that were fed by the existing hatred among certain swaths of whites for immigrants and other races, religions and ethnicities, all of whom were plotting, according to the fiery rhetoric of the day, to use these federal mandates to subjugate freedom-loving, white Christian Americans. For its part, the federal government was plotting — according to the fiery rhetoric of the day — to use these mandates as a ruse to funnel money out of the pockets of “hardworking Americans” as part of their tyrannical agenda to impose (take your pick) socialism/fascism/communism.
Today, patriotic, God-fearing Americans have been called to take up arms against a federal government accused of overstepping its bounds with (take your pick) immigration reform/health care reform/anything-reform under a black president — issues that are fed by the existing hatred among certain swaths of whites for immigrants and other races, religions and ethnicities, all of whom are plotting, according to the fiery rhetoric of today, to use these mandates to subjugate freedom-loving, white Christian Americans. For its part, the federal government (loosely defined as liberals, from Obama on down) is plotting — according to fiery rhetoric of today — to use these mandates as a ruse to funnel money out of the pockets of “hardworking Americans” as part of their tyrannical agenda to impose (take your pick) socialism/fascism/communism.
The call to RELOAD and repeat history has been implicit and relentless. If not Tucson, then where? If not now, then when? And if not Gabrielle Giffords, then who?
Rep. Frank Kratovil — who was hung in effigy?
Rep. Alan Grayson — who has received a file full of death threats, both overt and covert, with the latter including Sarah Palin’s advice to her fellow tea-baggers to “take him out”?
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz — whose opponent, Robert Lowry, held a rally at a target range, where he shot at a human silhouette with Rep. Wasserman-Shultz’s initials printed beside the head?
Rep. Ron Klein — whose Palin-endorsed opponent, Allen West, told his fellow tea-baggers, “You’ve got to make the fella scared to come out of his house,” and “If you’re here to stand up-to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, to charge into the ranks-you’re my brother and sister in this fight,” and “Nothing personal Ron, but I plan to beat you like you stole something dear to me…. Matter of fact you are, My Country!”?
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver — who was spat on and — along with several of his colleagues — called a nigger by tea bag party-goers within just minutes of a Michele Bachmann “Code Red” rally on Capitol Hill ?
Rep. Bart Stupak — who, like many of his colleagues during the health car wars, received death threats?
Rep. Russ Carnahan — who had a coffin left in front of his home?
Tom Perriello — who was hung in effigy?
Rep. Tom Perriello’s brother — whose gas line was cut?
Rep. Louise Slaughter – who not only received death threats against herself, but received a message that snipers were being deployed to kill children of those who voted for health care overhaul?
If not Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, then who?
Those in the media and political mainstreams, who have spent the past 2 years calling for such a tragedy, whether blatantly or by polite suggestion, can breathe a huge sigh of relief that it was a mentally ill man, and not one of their own, who ultimately pulled the trigger. As for the rest of the Democrats whose names — or whose children’s names — have been placed on the various hit lists issued by the radical political right, it may be a few years before they can breathe so easy.
The stage was similarly set in the before Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963. Days before his arrival in Dallas, the American Bible Society placed an anti-Kennedy advertisement in the local newspaper, urging the citizenry to be vigilant against the march of “Godless Communism.”
Faux FBI-style wanted-posters were circulated, accusing Kennedy of treason for, among other things, appointing “Anti-Christians [Jews]to Federal office” and for giving “support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots.”
White supremacists painted swastikas on Jewish stores, and Gov. George Wallace — whose contempt for the Kennedy family made him somewhat of a folk hero among segregationist southerners — arrived in Dallas that same week, his plane blazed with Confederate flags. While there, Wallace spoke on the issue of segregation, saying that, while he had nothing against “Negroes,” he was against the mixing of races and resented “Washington telling us how to run our schools.”
Texans engaged in a parlor game where folk deliberated over which Kennedy they hated the most: John? Jackie? Joseph? Bobby?
Bumper stickers throughout Dallas echoed the words flaunted on Confederate flag festooned billboards throughout the South: KO the Kennedys. Perhaps in retrospect — that is, after Kennedy had been shot in the head — some of the folk who flaunted those bumper stickers might have claimed, as Sarah Palin is now claiming, “We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights.”
Remarkably, there were those who actually applauded the assassination, while some even expressed regret that Jackie, too, had not been killed. Such was the heat generated from the political rhetoric of the day.
That said, history has yet to agree on the facts surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. This much is known: We had enough warning before the fall of 1963 to know that — among certain politicians and citizens who considered themselves patriotic, freedom-loving, hard-working Americans — the idea of murdering children and assassinating the president of the United States seemed like a good idea.
We can keep pretending that bombs and bullets are fired from a vacuum, independent of the cultural climate and the political rhetoric. Or we can acknowledge what we already know: no one is really surprised when the violent rhetoric of the day actually produces fruit.
Crafting the Perfect Storm
A friend of mine, who is no longer living, was a nuclear physicist who worked, for a time, with fault tree and root cause analyses, which are used to predict the likelihood of bad events. The idea is to prevent bad events by studying the various factors that either have either caused bad events in the past or which would, in theory, cause such an outcome. I found the topic fascinating: What would happen if this went wrong, then this went wrong or, alternately, that went wrong?
As much as scientific inquiry is eschewed in the current political climate, there is a science to how and why bad events — from nuclear accidents to failed car brakes — occur. To give an over-simplified, real-life scenario of such a fault-tree analysis: What would happen if, say, an earthquake of this particular magnitude occurred 120 miles away at the precise moment that a nuclear reactor was at this particular stage of operation while, simultaneously, this worker was distracted and/or this mechanism, this gauge, and/or this system failed?
In other words: How to create, on paper, the perfect storm? The fault tree analysis does this by studying theoretical disasters, whereas the root cause analysis studies real-life disasters that have already occurred.
William Duke, in discussing the root cause analysis of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, offered some interesting insights, which may be worth considering in the wake of the murders in Tucson:
Humans have a deep need to seek retribution against those that harm us. This is not irrational. Nor is the desire to seek justice for those harmed by disasters. But, this need often preoccupies and distracts us from the more compelling need to understand why such things happen. We cannot prevent what we do not understand. We can address an individual committing the same mistake by taking away their ability to do it. We can address an organization from repeating mistakes by punishing it or imposing tighter controls and oversight. But, in doing so we are not addressing the most fundamental “Why,” the true root causes of such disastrous events. We live in a complex world where small events can have colossal effects. We tend to think that in such a complex world there are an infinite, or nearly infinite, number of root causes. This is not true. Research over the past few decades demonstrates that root causes fall into a very few categories and that these root causes, unfortunately, recur frequently.
Interestingly, as Duke went on to explain, there has been much study and research into understanding how some complex organizations in “high-risk environments” (e.g. U.S. Navy aircraft carriers) have managed to operate for many years with very few bad events.
From these studies, the term “mindfulness” emerged. In a nutshell, mindfulness encompasses five basic characteristics which, combined, enable organizations to — among other things — study root causes and learn from failure, so as to prevent future bad events. Sounds simple enough. But how does an organization go about cultivating “mindfulness”? Duke addressed this in his paper:
The question remains, however, how does an organization actually develop these characteristics when mindfulness is, at heart, a cultural phenomenon? Organizational culture is very difficult to change. Weick and Sutcliffe offer some sage advice. They assert that, in order to change your culture, you should act your way into what you want to become. But, if it’s about acting, where’s the script?
One ubiquitous presence in nearly every violent chapter of our country’s history has been the rise to power by the lowest common denominator — the underbelly of our society.
The underbelly is distinguished by their words and deeds — not by color, religion, ethnicity, wealth or social station. Be they velvet-gloved racists, nativists, charismatic cult leaders or extemporaneous folk heroes, their rise to power is always generated by fear — fear of economic hardship, fear of attack, fear of the bogeyman. And the more fear they can generate, the more power they have to influence ordinary people to do the unthinkable.
This does not happen overnight. Sarah Palin did not introduce herself on the world stage in September 2008 by accusing her opponent of “palling around with terrorists.” That would have shocked the sensibilities of most Americans. Better to start small. Just a little bleat:
“‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity,’ …. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.”
Given the recent flag-pin flak that preceded that speech, who would dare find fault with the lovely portrait that Sarah painted of America, even if it was the work of Westwood Pegler?
In the days following that speech, Sarah expanded on this portrait by dividing the country into two different kinds of people: people who love America and people who don’t, with the Obamas falling into the latter category.
From here — and with the serendipitous arrival of Joe the plumber who, being just an average Joe, couldn’t be called to task for testing the waters with the word “socialist” — the staple rhetoric at team McCain-Palin quickly grew to encompass socialist, communist, Muslim, terrorist.
After the election, the rhetoric only escalated, with much of this coming from the folk at Fox News, who echoed Palin’s labels and added some of their own. By the summer of 2009, with the advent of the corporate-funded, Palin-led tea party, Obama had morphed into a Nazi tyrant dictator, intent on imposing fascist rule — complete with death panels to kill babies and old people.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2009, the tea bag party-goers — many of them scared shitless by this point — bought unprecedented number of guns and ammo. They began defiantly carried their guns to rallies, many of them also carrying signs with the Thomas Jefferson quote: The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
Somehow, and for reasons we have yet to agree on, a lot of ordinary people across the country — including the built-in statistic of mentally disturbed people that exist in any population — had come to believe that insurrection, overthrowing the government and assassinating the president were good ideas.
But it didn’t stop with the president. As the bill came closer to being signed, the rage and the threats came to encompass every politician in favor of health care reform, which included most of the Democrats on Capitol Hill. These folk, according to Sharron Angle, had gotten the American people, ” really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies,” a solution that was echoed in Sarah Palin’s gun sights map in the spring of 2010.
Where does one escalate the rhetoric from here? What is the next step, after successfully convincing a huge swath of American citizens that the president and over half of Congress are pro-terrorist, fascist, Nazis who are trying to kill us? Once you’ve championed the death of the president and half of Congress, what’s left to say?
The calls for civility, for toning down the rhetoric have been ongoing since the fall of 2008. But, rather than consider their responsibility in setting the violent tone, Palin, Angle, Limbaugh, Bachmann, Beck and the rest have not only ignored these calls, but have painted them as a plot by the tyrant and his minions to silence dissent. It was only after the bloody massacre in Tucson that any of them saw fit to respond to the calls for civility. And in the case of Sarah Palin, in particular, the focus of her response has been to deny culpability and express her own personal outrage at being victimized by the tragedy.
Addressing her new-found victimhood, Sarah Palin chose the incendiary term “blood libel.” This was a test balloon, to be sure, and was designed — just like her Westwood Pegler quote — to send out a signal, to test the temperature, to rally her base to her defense. Sarah’s “blood libel” strategy backfired in a really big way, indeed offending the sensibilities of most Americans. In response, Palin offered a second defense, phrased in milder terms, and has since been uncharacteristically silent.
But fellow teabagger, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, has since picked up the ball and released another test balloon. When asked to comment on the calls to tone down the rhetoric, Lee said:
“The shooter wins if we, who’ve been elected, change what we do just because of what he did.”
Even tho this was a direct rip-off from the Bush playbook (e.g. The terrorists win if Americans don’t go back to normalcy) it, too, failed to take flight.
But there will be more test balloons. We can be sure of that. And over time, as the visceral horror from Tucson massacre gradually recedes into the past, we can be equally sure that one of these test balloons will succeed.
Crafting the Perfect Storm
Lee Atwater has been given the lion’s share of credit for the art of honing old hatreds into a political movement, but it was the Jim Crow era, the McCarthy era, the integration era, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and the legacies of men like George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Westwood Pegler and Harry Dent that gave Atwater the tools for drafting the blueprint that was used by Reagan for making political hay out old ignorance, old fears and old hatreds.
By today’s standards, however, Atwater’s blueprint seems almost naive, having since been refined by men like Karl Rove, Steve Schmidt, Charles Black and Dick Cheney, who turned the science of fear into a commodity. Working in coalition with corporate titans, these guys bankroll the fear-peddlers, and they fill the coffers of the politicians. to and they tend to the coffers of receptive politicians, which includes . Political hay is little more than a petty-case expenditure in the real business influencing, exploiting and re-writing the laws of the land so that these corporations can bilk billions of corporate dollars from the American economy — sucking the marrow from the middle class and driving the poor into deeper destitution.
How to make such an agenda popular with the American people?
Convince them that it is their patriotic duty to be good capitalists. Convince them that everything from Social Security, to public schools, to Medicare, to police and fire departments & public works will be cheaper and more efficiently run once turned over to private, for-profit business. Convince them Medicare = socialism and Social Security = socialism. Convince them that there are only two alternatives to health care: Nazi death panels or the private, for-profit insurance industry.
Convince them that government regulation kills jobs. Convince them that, because the free market is self-adjusting, corporations will eventually put safety over the profit margin when it comes to our food supply, our water, our air, our health, worker rights and consumer protections. Convince them that, because the free market is self-adjusting, the titans will eventually using Wall Street as their private gambling parlor and will one day, or their own accord, stop plundering the American people to fill their pockets.
In other words, convince them that there is no such thing as moderation or bipartisanship or a middle ground. It’s all or nothing, folks. Kill or be killed. The titans know precisely when, where and how to set the tremor; how to sidestep the checks and balances; how to evade accountability, and how to raise the heat to dangerous levels.
The problem is that rational, respectful, civil human beings do not promote violence as a remedy to the democratic process. For this purpose — and this alone — Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Sharron Angle and the rest have been good investments.
As for that business in Tucson, we are reminded that, after all, Sarah’s finger was not on the trigger. Nor was Sharron’s, or Glenn’s or Michele’s or Rush’s or Bill’s or anyone else’s. The sole responsibility for the violence belongs to the person who pulled the trigger. But if we accept this, then we must also accept that the only persons responsible for 9-11 were the 19 hijackers on the planes.
And if we are unwilling to accept this, then we need to change our laws to reflect the reality on the ground. Change the wording in the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the U.S. Code to state, for the record, exactly which races and religions are allowed, under law, to engage in terrorism, insurrection and violent overthrow of the government. And while we’re at it, we should also re-write the Constitution to define treason as anything that is, on the say-so of anyone, treason. This way, patriotic Americans will have license to water the tree of liberty every time they disagree with the outcome of an election or any other contentious aspect of democracy.
At this point, we can then declare that — in this marvelous melting pot we call “The United States of America” — democracy is an antiquated ideal, a quaint relic from a bygone era that was sold to the highest bidder in the early 21st century and replaced with a plutocracy, where the dirty work of silencing dissent is subcontracted to violent mobs, rogue politicians and other madmen.
Of course there are — as there always have been — other tools at our disposal. After all, the same science that has been used to demonize politicians from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Gabrielle Giffords could be used to accomplish the opposite. We could choose to cultivate our political and cultural landscape from a place of strength instead of weakness. The same science that has been used to prevent another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island could be used to help prevent bloody massacres and political assassinations. William Duke spoke about when he wrote:
“… in order to change your culture, you should act your way into what you want to become.”
We’ve already seen what we become when we act from a place of weakness, where our best ideas are generated from fear, ignorance, rage and violence. But what might we become if, instead, we acted from a place of strength? What would happen if our best ideas were generated from a place of mutual tolerance, enlightenment, respect and human kindness — in a word: civility? Could it be that that if we chose to act as if we were this wonderful melting pot of people, all united under a civil democracy, that we might become just that?
by Ed Sparrow for the canarypapers