The Rhetoric of Fear Feeds Terror
An attempted bombing, likely by the far right, is hardly reported – a sign of how far liberals have been silenced after Tucson.
It should have been a national story with heavy coverage. The hook, on its face, seems tailor-made for breathless coverage: last week in Spokane, Washington state, a suspected rightwing terrorist attempts to murder multiple parade-goers who are out to celebrate the life of an American hero killed by a rightwing terrorist 43 years ago. The talking heads would have an endless series of important-sounding questions to ask - with "political vitriol" and "hate", no doubt, figuring highly. Experts in counterterrorism, hate groups and racial politics could be brought on as guests, alongside shocked near-victims of this thwarted bombing, which FBI officials have described as sophisticated and potentially able to kill numerous people.
Other attempts, which had far less chance of going off, receive heavy coverage, so why did the national news media give the attempted bombing at the Spokane MLK Day parade such cursory amount of coverage?
The answer lies in looking at which two national news organizations did give the story the coverage it deserves, MSNBC and the Huffington Post. Yep, that's right: the two liberal outlets. Everyone else was afraid or unwilling to give the story any oxygen - even though doing so could help catch the perpetrators by publicizing the reward the FBI is offering.
Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer has the right instincts, which is to look at the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona to see how it might have influenced public discourse around domestic terrorism. Liberals can - and should - be forgiven for blaming the right for the news that a Democratic congresswoman who has been heavily targeted by paranoid Tea Party activists in a state that's giving South Carolina some competition in the contest for most reactionary state in the country.
Interestingly, our instincts are not necessarily off the mark. We do not know yet whether the shooter's mental health status will be a matter at issue in his trial, but we do know that Jared Lee Loughner was heavily invested in fringe rightwing conspiracy theories and is apparently a misogynist who echoes many extreme right beliefs about women.
None of this would matter if the mainstream American right was dedicated to rationality and civility. But since the mainstream right has embraced conspiracy theories and talk of insurrection, they've created an environment where the fringe right can flourish.
Despite the facts on the ground, the right was able to quell discussion about the role that their paranoia and violent rhetoric likely played in this event, particularly with regard to the political figure whom, among others, Loughner chose to shoot. Sarah Palin started shouting "blood libel", and it was all so unpleasant that many in the mainstream media decided it was better to let important questions lie than to provoke her into worse assaults on decency and good taste.
Unfortunately, the effect of the successful rightwing freakout has been to scare most of the mainstream media from talking about domestic terrorism honestly at all. The attempted bombing of an MLK Day parade cannot be excused away as mental illness. Nor can someone muddy the waters by implying that the would-be bomber is, in fact, some sort of pinko commie. It would be far harder to deny that the white supremacist groups and militias that are flourishing in the American north west owe their success to the mainstreaming of paranoia in the American right.
As David Neiwert has documented in his extensive research of these groups, rightwing extremists justify themselves by telling themselves they speak for the community at large, saying those things they believe others believe, but are afraid to say. So, the further right the mainstream gets, the more emboldened the fringe right becomes.
Which means that if someone like Glenn Beck creates rogues gallery where eight of the nine people listed are Jews, overly antisemitic groups will see this as a coded signal of support for them. It's the same story with accusing President Obama of being unAmerican or a socialist - racist groups pick up on this as further evidence they speak for those who are afraid to be overtly racist. It's not hard, from there, to feel that now is the time to strike - perhaps by bombing an antiracism event.
The best prevention for all this is to hold the right accountable and shame conservatives from using incendiary, paranoid rhetoric. But after the right won narrative control after the Tucson shooting, the possibility of holding them responsible becomes ever further out of reach.
The evidence demonstrates that many on the right have already figured out that they now have greater license to sow paranoia and call for violence after the Tucson shooting. One of the people still alive on Beck's Jewish-heavy rogues gallery, liberal sociologist Frances Piven, has been receiving a crushing number of death threats.
Lest you're tempted to say that this is just a bunch of nobodies whose opinions don't matter, I highly recommend looking at this post from the editorial staff of RedState.com, on the anniversary of Roe v Wade. Red State is the mainstream right; editor Erick Erickson is a regular guest on CNN. In this post, the authors threaten insurrection against the government if they don't get their way on abortion laws.
"The reason for this is simple: once before, our nation was forced to repudiate the supreme court with mass bloodshed. We remain steadfast in our belief that this will not be necessary again, but only if those committed to justice do not waiver or compromise, and send a clear and unmistakable signal to their elected officials of what must be necessary to earn our support.
Aside from the hilarious attempt to imply that the Confederacy started the civil war to repudiate slavery (it was, in fact, to defend it), this is a chilling passage. Especially in light of the fact that violence to protest abortion is one of the most common, ongoing forms of domestic terrorism. Instead of being ashamed for using inciting language justifying violence in the wake of the Tucson shooting, it seems some of the right feel empowered to double down.
© 2011 Guardian/UK