Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said it all. “We have become the mecca for racism and bigotry,” Dupnik said of the political climate in his state of Arizona. Of course the sheriff was referring to the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in Tucson. Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting spree in front of a grocery store, wounding at least 18 people, including Giffords his intended target, and killing six, including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl born on 9-11. “Mein Kampf” was reportedly listed as one of Loughner’s favorite books.
According to Dupnik, the gunman did not act alone. And he said what needed to be said about this senseless act of violence and the larger implications for Arizona and our nation as a whole. “It’s time to do a little soul searching about the rhetoric we hear on the radio, how our children are being raised,” he added.
Contrast this with the empty words of Governor Jan Brewer. Calling the shooting “this senseless and cruel violence,” Brewer said she is “heartbroken,” adding that “all of Arizona is shocked and deeply saddened by the horrific tragedy that transpired this morning in Tucson.” Now, I do not claim to know what is in Brewer’s mind, nor do I question whether she might actually show genuine sadness for the victims. That is not the point. Rather, Governor Brewer is part of the problem in Arizona. And when you contribute to a harsh political climate full of vitriol, hatred and scapegoating, your words ring hollow when you later condemn those violent acts that climate produced.
Arizona is ground zero for hatred and intolerance in America. Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, which allows for the racial profiling of Latinos and those suspected of being undocumented aliens. It is a pure public policy expression of racial hatred and intolerance, and was drafted by an anti-immigrant hate group, with input from the private prison lobby. In addition, Russell Pearce, the bill’s cosponsor in the Arizona state senate, has ties to white supremacist groups. Similar in spirit to SB 1070 is Arizona’s new ethnic studies ban, which the state legislature passed and Brewer signed into law. The law prohibits the teaching of Mexican-American studies in the Tucson public schools and throughout the state—even as similar courses in Asian, black and Native American studies remain unaffected by the ban. Schools will lose funding if they dare to teach Chicano studies in Arizona, and that’s a crime unto itself.
This codification of hate is made possible in a state such as Arizona, where a climate of anti-immigrant sentiment emboldens those who would take matters into their own hands. Lax gun laws don’t exactly help things, either. Arizona allows almost everyone who passes a federal background check to buy a gun, and a new law allows people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Really?
Opportunistic and unscrupulous politicians such as Jan Brewer never have to raise a fist to contribute to a climate of violence. They don’t have to own or use a gun, or wish anyone harm. Similarly, the Southern Dixiecrats who hoped to preserve segregation kept their hands clean, as did the White Citizens Councils, also known as the “white-collar Klan.” But through their rhetoric, these politicians gave a wink and a nod to those unbalanced, hate-filled members of the unwashed masses who have no qualms about using their gun to assassinate someone.
On the national scene, the anti-Obama rhetoric of the Birther and Tea Party movements encourages death threats against the President, and the carrying of loaded weapons to Obama events. Some political candidates such as Nevada Sharron Angle stir the pot when they call for “Second Amendment” remedies if they don’t get what they want. Meanwhile, some congressional lawmakers openly question the President’s citizenship and legitimacy, dangerously crossing the line and going far beyond an honest disagreement over policies.
“There has never been one unkind, angry or cross word come between us,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) of his colleague Giffords. Calling the assailant “either deranged or evil beyond words” and concluding that “someone has stepped out of bounds of humanity,” Franks added that Giffords is “a precious, decent human being and this tragedy is beyond my ability to articulate. …She was just out there doing her job.” And yet, while Franks certainly must appreciate the security risks and threats of physical violence public figures face, he has participated in venomous attacks against President Obama. Franks called President Obama an “enemy of humanity,” and his stance on abortion “insane” and godless. He once demanded that Obama release his birth certificate to prove his citizenship and eligibility to hold the office. At a town hall meeting Rep. Franks said he was terrified of Obama, and came within three days of filing an Obama citizenship lawsuit.
Giffords—a moderate who happens to be the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona— has been no stranger to threats. Her office was vandalized, and she received death threats after voting for the health reform package. On her Facebook page, Sarah Palin targeted 20 House Democrats, including Giffords, with a map featuring 20 gun sights. Palin has been scrubbing those graphics from her website, the way you try to put toothpaste back in a tube. Moreover, in June 2010, Gifford’s Tea Party opponent Jesse Kelly hosted a campaign event to “Get on Target for Victory in November,” “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office” and “Shoot a fully automatic M15 with Jesse Kelly.” And Judge Roll was a target of death threats from the far right, receiving 200 threatening phone calls in one afternoon.
Looking at all of this from a purely political vantage point, the shooting puts a crimp in the plans of Congressional Republicans. Thriving on the politics of scapegoating, GOP lawmakers seek whipping boys to detract attention from their conservative policies of upward wealth redistribution. They throw red meat to uneducated whites in their base by blaming Muslims, Mexican immigrants, gay marriage and black and Latino homeowners for America’s woes.
Before the Giffords shooting, Republicans in Congress started to tar and feather public unions as the cause of our problems. And attack dog Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) had plans to vilify President Obama, using the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to wage a witch hunt of investigations against the administrations. Issa is a Lebanese-American, and his party routinely depicts the President as an Arab and Muslim terrorist.
There’s an old saying that God don’t like ugly. Well, there’s a lot of ugly coming out of Arizona. The state is in a bad way. In the middle of the desert, Arizona languishes in a sea of putrid waters. And yet, Arizona is very American.