The attempted assassination of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, has inescapable links to extreme right-wing vitriol from radio talk shows and the mouthing of populist politicians like Sarah Palin. It marks a new stage in America’s unfolding political crisis.
Only last March, Palin – who has eyes on the Republican nomination for the presidency – posted on Facebook: “The crossfire is intense, so penetrate through enemy territory by bombing through the press, and use your strong weapons – your Big Guns – to drive to the hole. Shoot with accuracy; aim high and remember it takes blood, sweat and tears to win.”
Then, in the run-up to last November’s mid-term elections, she published a map of political targets with crosshairs which looked very much like gun sights over Giffords' district, along with the districts of 19 other Democrats who voted for president Obama’s health-care bill. After posting the map on her Facebook page, Palin told her Twitter followers to go there with the message "Don't Retreat – Instead RELOAD!"
Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who is to be charged with six counts of murder – including a nine-year-old child, a federal judge and the attempted killing of Giffords – was known to share some of the fantasy views encouraged by Palin and the Tea Party movement. These include the notion that Obama is an illegitimate president, that the US currency is a fraud and that federal government in general is unconstitutional. Asked if she had any enemies, Giffords’ father said: "Yeah, the whole Tea Party."
Giffords, a former Republican turned Democrat, had been holding a public meeting in a shopping precinct when the gunman opened fire. When Giffords held a similar meeting last year, someone dropped a gun. Loughner is described by the authorities as mentally unstable. Yet he was able to purchase a semi-automatic pistol.
It’s got that bad that even the sheriff conducting the investigation, Clarence Dupnik, did not hold back: "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government – the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country, is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Add in the widespread belief that Obama’s modest health care changes are the first step to socialism together with the historic catastrophe that is the American economy, and you can see where paranoia among the dispossessed and disenfranchised is coming from. While Wall Street is booming, deliberately fuelled by the Federal Reserve’s programme of printing money, the rest of the country is going to the dogs.
Even the Daily Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is disturbed by the latest data. “The numbers of people on food stamps have reached 43.2m, an all time-high of 14% of the population …. The US Conference of Mayors said visits to soup kitchens are up 24% this year. There are 643,000 people needing shelter each night."
The long-term unemployed (more than six months) have reached 42% of the total, twice the peak of the early 1990s The “labour participation rate” for working-age men over 20 has dropped to 73.6%, which he says is the lowest figure since 1948. “My guess is that this figure exceeds the average for the Great Depression … It is no surprise that America’s armed dissident movement has resurfaced.”
As Evans-Pritchard acknowledges, there is no “easy solution” to “creeping depression” in America and elsewhere which has left “very large numbers of people in the West trapped on the wrong side of globalisation, and nobody doing much about it.” Though, of course, he doesn’t put in so bluntly, the capitalist system is visibly in meltdown – socially, economically and politically. The events in Tuccon are a sign of the times.