01.15.11

Rise of the Fright Wing

One week after the massacre in Tucson, Wingnuts author John Avlon examines the burgeoning movement that inspired Jared Loughner—and threatens to spawn similar hate-fueled attacks.

One week ago, a madman murdered six people and put a bullet through the brain of a congresswoman in Tucson, Arizona.

Our national analysis in the aftermath has itself been schizophrenic, with calls for a new era of civility competing with new rounds of partisan finger-pointing. Now, with memorial services concluding and Gabrielle Giffords making a miraculous recovery, the creeping consensus is that while the shooting was a tragedy, there is nothing larger to learn from it. I disagree.

Yes, it is now clear that Jared Loughner is a certified nut-burger whose insanity was not inspired by partisan politics. But this incident did not occur in a vacuum. His targeting of a congresswoman came at a time when we’ve seen a ratcheting up of gun rhetoric and violent threats. It is a reminder of why we all should care when fear and hate start to distort our domestic political debates. It’s time for a cease-fire.

Remember that “ Second Amendment remedies” were casually referenced by Sharron Angle against Harry Reid during the 2010 campaign in the neighboring state of Nevada. In Virginia, GOP state senate candidate Catherine Crabill said, “We have the chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box.” An Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammel joked with a town hall crowd about buying a hunting license to hunt the president, saying, “The Obama tags? We’d buy some of those.” And Democrats were not immune—ex-Rep. Paul Kanjorski said that Floridians should put Governor-elect Rick Scott “against the wall and shoot him."

We have seen high-profile armed protests. In Arizona, a member of the “4409” group brought an AR-15 Rifle to protest outside an Obama rally days after hearing local Pastor Steven L. Anderson give a Sunday sermon titled "Why I Hate Barack Obama." In New England, a man named William Kostric protested outside an Obama town hall armed with a 9mm pistol and holding a sign saying "It is time to water the tree of liberty"–a reference to a Thomas Jefferson quote about “the blood of tyrants” which was emblazoned on Timothy McVeigh’s T-shirt the day he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Conservatives are rightly quick to invoke First and Second Amendment rights in defense, but ask yourself what their response would have been if there were armed left-wing protests outside speeches by President Bush.

History shows us that it is most often the lone gunman who takes hate-filled teachings to their ultimate extension of outright violence.

We’ve also seen a series of extremist-influenced shootings over the past two years. On April 4, 2009, three Pittsburgh police officers were shot and killed by Richard Andrew Poplawski, a frequent visitor to Alex Jones’ websites and a poster on the white supremacist Stormfront.org, who had expressed fears that a ban on guns would soon be imposed in the USA. Later that month, a Florida national guardsman named Joshua Cartwright, murdered two Florida sheriff’s deputies. In the police report, Cartwright’s wife said he “believed that the U.S. government was conspiring against him. She said he had been severely disturbed that Barack Obama had been elected president.” In May, a former member of the Freemen militia group named Scott Roeder walked into a Kansas church and shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions. In June, James von Brunn walked into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and killed a 40-year-old African-American security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns, and wounded several others. But of course not all the extremist influenced shootings we’ve recently seen can be characterized as coming from the far-right. The bloodiest mass shooting in recent history was Major Hassan at Fort Hood, but that was a domestic front in the ongoing war against Islamist terrorism. And the December shooting at a Panama City school board meeting was perpetrated by Clay Duke, an ex-con who left rambling online notes about class warfare and was such a fan of the film V for Vendetta that he spray-painted its symbol on the wall of the meeting room before he opened fire.

It’s also relevant that the last Congress also confronted an unprecedented number of death threats—particularly during the "death panel" dominated health-care town halls in the over-heated summer of 2009. Some of these threats were directed at Republicans like Eric Cantor but the majority were aimed at Democrats. Some congressmen were hung in effigy and one had a gas line cut at a family member’s house. Others had swastikas painted on their district offices or had bricks thrown through their office windows. Giffords’ aides called the cops when someone dropped a gun at one of her town halls.

Despite these incidents—and many others—our Congress was so pathetically polarized that congressional leaders could not agree on bipartisan language to condemn the threats.

The fact that these incidents largely preceded the once-again-infamous Sarah Palin map showing target cross-hairs on the districts of Democrats she wanted to be defeated in 2010 was an important reason for the outcry at the time—and why it was not unjustified. The fact that left-wing sites offered similar gun-site imagery to target their opponents (including a call to primary the centrist Rep. Giffords from the left) only compounds the larger point. At the time, Giffords’ general election opponent Jesse Kelly thought it was harmless to hold a fundraiser with a public notice that read: “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M-16 with Jesse Kelly.”

Giffords herself warned about the danger of violent imagery at the time, saying: “We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list…But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross-hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.” She was right.

Words do matter in politics. By pumping up fear and hate in the service of hyper-partisanship—by using conflict, tension, fear and resentment as a formula for driving ratings—we are playing with forces that can easily get out of control. We are giving cover—and sometimes a sense of purpose—to the crazy among us.

History shows us that it is most often the lone gunman who takes hate-filled teachings to their ultimate extension of outright violence.

The anarchist assassin of President William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, was not acting on the orders of any specific group. His fanaticism was so intense that he was thought to be a government agent and not welcomed into the anarchist circles. The archetypal lone-gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a paranoid Marxist U.S. Marine who moved to Moscow and then re-defected. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was an outcast who felt rejected even by militia men themselves. Even Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympic bomber driven by anti-abortion and anti-gay beliefs, was influenced by indoctrination but acted alone.

All these figures were unhinged extremist ideologues darkly inspired by the velocity of rhetoric around them.

As more facts emerge, we’re coming to see that Loughner represents aspects of what I’ve called the "fright wing" of American politics—the murky ground of paranoid conspiracy theories and anti-government rants where the far-left and far-right over-lap. Anyone who boasts that both Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto are among his favorite books is on the way to fitting the fright-wing profile. Likewise, former classmates have contended that his favorite online films include the 9/11 Truther screed Loose Change and the one-world government and micro-chip implanting prophecy that is paraded in the film Zeitgeist (Michelle Goldberg had an excellent analysis of Loughner’s moth-to-the-flame obsession with these fright-wing films). While Loughner cannot be shoe-horned into the right or left, it is increasingly clear that his instability was fed in part by fright-wing political screeds.

But what can we do to learn from this tragedy that will help stop another one from occurring? After all, there will always be unhinged extremists among us. It’s not too much to hope that we might make it a bit more difficult for them to get their hands on weapons that can fire 31 shots in 15 seconds, but that’s a topic for another day.

The reason we need a restoration of civility has less to do with Jared Loughner and more to do with confronting the toxic political environment we created and tolerated before the attack. Too many hyper-partisans on the right have been content to enflame or excuse increasingly hateful rhetoric when it is directed at Democrats over the past two years. On the left, they assume that violent and hateful speech is the exclusive purview of the right and that they are always on the side of the angels. Both sides are quick to attack any infractions by partisans on the other side, while reflexively defending the extreme statements on their own side. I agree with Tea Party leader Judson Phillips, when he wrote, “Within the entire political spectrum, there are extremists, both on the left and the right. Violence of this nature should be decried by everyone and not used for political gain.” But I want to see follow-through on that post-massacre moment of clarity.

The change we need to see extends far beyond mixed seating at the State of the Union. It will require calling out the extremes on your side, especially when and if they start to employ violent rhetoric or threats. The old adage that "they might be crazy, but they’re our crazies” needs to stop.

Less than one year ago, when BeastBooks published Wingnuts I warned, “We have enjoyed a relative period of innocence in American politics. We have been mercifully free of assassination in recent years—even as we have pumped up hyper-partisanship and coarsened our civic dialogue. But we are not immune from the larger cycles of violence that occasionally erupt and shock even the most stable societies in history…We are crossing the line from considering political opponents personal enemies. All that’s left is an unhinged soul who takes the hate as a call to heroism—the small but decisive step from being ready to die for a cause and being willing to kill for it…We are courting a season of violence in America.”

Jared Loughner’s insanity was not caused by politics—but his targeting of a congresswoman at a town hall is a reminder of why we should all care when fear and hate start to distort our domestic political debates.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.