Happy New Year everybody! This afternoon I write about a sad event that took place on Sunday morning (Melbourne time) in Tucson, Arizona. A US Democrat Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in an attempted assassination in which many others were wounded, and six others died. At the time of writing, the hopes for Giffords’ own survival were, remarkably, quite high. The shooter was immediately apprehended, one Jared Lee Loughner, and is believed to have acted alone.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, in briefing the media on the shootings, decried the atmosphere of hate and vitriol in US and Arizona politics as one of the catalysts for the tragedy. Social media networks had already exploded in speculation of the reasons for Loughner’s actions, with many noting that last year Sarah Palin had posted an infamous map of the US, “targeting” certain Democratic districts for Republican takeover in the 2010 US midterm elections. The targeted districts were marked with the crosshairs of a rifle, and the names of sitting congress-people listed. One of those twenty districts was Giffords’ district in Arizona. In an interview with MSNBC in March 2010, Giffords expressed concern over the possible subliminal messages in such a picture, saying that people had to realise there were “consequences” in publishing such images. Furthermore, Palin has famously exhorted Republicans to “reload” rather than “retreat” in the face of President Obama’s agenda. The crosshairs map was quickly removed from Palin’s websites after the shooting, and there were some reports that the “reload” messages, posted often through her Twitter account, were also removed. It seems that Palin herself or her aides realised the links that could be drawn between those provocative words and images, and the Tucson massacre.
Of course Palin is not the only person who engages in vitriolic language in US politics. President Obama has called for both sides of politics to tone down their rhetoric. However, it does seem to me, admittedly from afar, that the more overtly aggressive statements come from the US right. The failed Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle commented last year that disaffected citizens might turn to “second amendment remedies” as a “cure” for their ills (the Second Amendment refers to the US’s constitutional protection for the right to bear arms). A key agitator in aggressive and biased coverage is the Fox News 24 hour cable channel, which doesn’t have a cultural parallel in Australia beyond the odd “shock jock” like Alan Jones or “shock” writer like Andrew Bolt. (Having said that, I cannot comment on the network which is said to be the ”liberal” counterweight to Fox, MSNBC, which is not so commonly available in Australia). Of course, the left does attack the right, often in hyperbolic terms. My perception is that the vitriol on the US left tends to belittle the right by asserting that major politicians such as Palin or former President George W Bush are “stupid”, and through sweeping characterisations of the right as racist, sexist, homophobic and warmongering. Finally, one must concede that what one person perceives as vitriol on one side of politics is often perceived by a person on the other side as truth or at least fair comment.
Since Obama’s election, there has also been an explosion in the formation of right wing “patriot” groups and militias. At the time of writing, the political leanings of Loughner are not known, though some clues are outlined below. Nevertheless, in recent times, outside instances of radical Islamist terrorism, political violence in the US has been dominated by the right, including the 1995 Oklahoma bombing (which sparked many of the same debates regarding vitriolic rhetoric as we are seeing now), killings of abortionists (including George Tiller in 2009, who had been commonly reviled by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly), the flying of a plane by a furious Joseph Stack into a federal tax building in 2010, and other incidents. It was not always so. Leftist violence in the US was apparent in the 1960s and 1970s, including terrorist attacks by groups such as the Weathermen. Interestingly, the left seems more aggressive these days in Europe, epitomised by recent violent anarchist riots in Greece and the UK, than in the US.
Could Palin or Angle be accused of “hate speech”? Under international human rights law, States are required to prohibit “hate speech” under Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination [CERD]. The reasoning is that such speech can provoke hostility, hatred and at worst violence against groups on the basis of their race or religion. An extreme example of how hate speech led to far worse human rights abuses was the hate speech aimed at Jews by the Nazis, and at Tutsis by Hutu media outlets in Rwanda in the lead-up to the 1994 genocide. The United States is a party to both the ICCPR and the CERD. However, it has opted out of the provisions relating to hate speech. The US has unusually strong constitutional protections for free speech, such that prohibitions on hate speech are generally unconstitutional.
Palin’s comments, and those of Angle, do not classify as hate speech under international human rights law. Hate speech is that which is aimed at a national, racial or religious group. “The Democrats” are not such a group. Instead, the rampant Islamophobia in the US, such as the incessant characterisation of Muslims en masse as terrorists and the outrage against the “Ground Zero mosque” are far more likely to classify as hate speech.
Did the words of Palin and Angle plausibly endanger people? Certainly, neither Palin nor Angle were actually exhorting supporters to shoot people. Arguably, they reinforced pre-existing hate, but it is more realistic to presume that such speech “incited” distrust of the opposing side of politics, and a feeling of confidence in the direction of their side of politics and its ultimate triumph. The words of Palin and Angle are not, for example, comparable to the overt calls for the assassination of Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange, or even his son, which have been prominent in the US media.
From my Australian perspective, it seems grossly irresponsible to use the metaphor of crosshairs on an identified person in a country where guns are so freely available and which has a long if sporadic history of political assassinations. Four presidents (Abraham Lincoln, John Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy) have been killed while others have been wounded, like Ronald Reagan, or a shot at, like Gerald Ford (twice). Other high profile victims include Bobby Kennedy, Harvey Milk, George Moscone, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Leo Ryan, and southern Governor George Wallace who survived but was paralysed. However, the use of the gun metaphor in politics, which might seem outright weird and reckless in Australia, has a cultural context in the US which makes it both more acceptable and, ironically, more dangerous.
One person, responding to the criticism of Palin, called The Death of a President, a (non-comedic) mockumentary on the “assassination” of George W Bush, the “Left’s ultimate snuff movie”. I thought that movie was a pretty interesting piece of cinema. However, I cannot deny that that movie had the potential to unhinge a person on the edge by openly depicting the “before and after” of the murder of an undoubtedly controversial President. And yet, I cannot bring myself to say that that movie should have been banned or indeed that it was “irresponsible” to make it. Yet some US cinema chains refused to show the film and CNN and NPR apparently refused to advertise it. So hate and irresponsible speech are, to a certain extent, in the eye of the beholder. And it is also true to note that extreme rhetoric has peppered US politics since its birth as a nation.
We don’t yet know Loughner’s motives and maybe we never will. Bizarre unpredictable motives are not unusual when it comes to lone gunmen. John Hinckley Jr attempted to kill Ronald Reagan as a way of impressing the actress Jodie Foster. Mark David Chapman killed John Lennon after being inspired by reading The Catcher in the Rye. Charles Manson led his gang to commit brutal murders in late 1960s California in an attempt to start a race war, in answer to some direction from the Beatles via the song, Helter Skelter. Loughner’s rantings on YouTube give us little clue as to his motivation. He is certainly angry with the Federal government, a sentiment shared with much of the Tea Party and others. He lists both the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf as two of his favourite books. He seems upset about the US currency, a concern shared by some on the right pining for a return to the gold standard. He is also strangely upset about the level of English grammar in Giffords’ district. Is that a strange allusion to the number of immigrants in that district: immigration is of course a hot topic in Arizona after its passage of draconian immigration laws, which were opposed by Giffords (and Dupnik)? Or is it simply the argument of a deranged madman, whose actions were motivated by unresolveable or even imaginary grievances?
What if it turns out that Palin’s crosshairs map did play a role in Loughner’s decision to shoot Giffords and the others? It would seem fairer for her to bear some responsibility than the Beatles for Manson, J.D. Salinger for Chapman or Foster for Hinckley, but it still seems a long bow to draw. The unintended incitement of a highly unstable person is very different to the intended incitement of assassination (as may be the current case with the murderous rants against Assange), riots or hatred of entire groups.
So, is it fair for Palin’s crosshairs map to even be raised by commentators in connection with the assassination in the public consciousness? You betcha. When one gratuitously uses violent imagery or words, and those words come eerily true, you have to expect criticism. Indeed, if any evidence of a link between the crosshairs and Loughner comes to light, it will probably end her political career. The damage may already be permanent. As Gabrielle Giffords herself said in March last year, “people have to realise there are consequences” in using such imagery. Sarah Palin may be suffering from some now. But they are nothing compared to the suffering and anguish of the victims and their loved ones.