Our JFK Moment?

January 9, 2011 | By | 25 Replies More

We finally have our Kennedy Moment in the current political climate.

Saturday, January 8th, 2011, is likely to go down as exactly that in the “Where were you when?” canon.  On that day, Jared Lee Loughner, age 22, went on a shooting rampage at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and wounding eighteen others before bystanders tackled him.  (There may be a second man involved, police are searching for him.)

The rhetoric is already ramping up on both sides over this.  Loughner is a young man with, apparently, a history of mental difficulties.  What is interesting in all this is the suggestion that Sarah Palin is partly responsible.  Note:


Sarah has made a great deal out of her  image as a gun-toting Alaskan Libertarianesque “True Amuricin” and she liberally deploys the iconography of Second Amendment fanatics in her publicity.  She knows her fan base, she’s playing directly to their self-image as Minutemen-type independents who are ready to pick up arms at the drop of a metaphor and defend…


Here’s where it starts to get questionable.  Just what is it this kind of rhetoric is supposed to be in support of?  It’s a non-nuclear form of MAD, the suggestion that if people get angry enough they will “take back their government” by armed insurrection.  It’s the stuff of B movies and drunken arguments on the Fourth of July.  Just words, mostly.  Until someone decides it’s time to act.

I have no doubt Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremer, and  Leon Czolgosz were deeply troubled individuals, mentally unstable.  I would not be surprised if John Wilkes Booth was the same, although he did work in concert with a number of conspirators.  But there are degrees of “troubled” and it’s always difficult to predict what anyone will do under the right pressure.

The fact is, we are in a period of the most extreme political ferment we have been in since the Sixties.  We’ve had people march on Washington, we have had well-aired and popularized conspiracy theories treated in certain media as fact, we have a cadre of the worst sort of pundits nationally extolling their audiences to extreme positions on—


Health care.

By early acounts, Mr. Loughner was upset over Representative Giffords’ support of health care reform.  Upset enough to consider gunning her down.  Upset enough to read Palin’s “metaphors” of “targeting” Democrats as a call to action.  About Health Care Reform.

Yes, I know, it isn’t really about health care so much as it is about the role of government in something that has been the bailiwick of private industry for a long, long time.  It’s about the idea that the government will somehow keep people from getting health care (all the while overlooking that many people are now barred from affordable health care by the very industry funding the jeremiads against the so-called government “take over”).  It’s about the idea of increasing taxes, about “giving” something to people who don’t earn it, about changing our system to a socialist system, about—

All of which is legitimate matter for serious national debate.  But this is not a revolution.  This is a change of policy and votes were cast.  (I find it ironic that all indicators leading up to the final version of what is now derisively labeled “Obamacare” suggested that the majority of Americans not only supported an overhaul but would have approved the one thing the health care industry fought tooth and nail to prevent, namely Single Payer, and now, from the sound of the AM stations and the Limbaugh Brigade you would think no one had supported anything of the sort except a few “liberal” Democrats in Congress.  We are allowing ourselves to come under siege over what is, by any metric of popular will, a non-issue.  What?  The fact that Republicans swept a Democratic majority out of the House in 2010?  Two things to remember—that was over the economy, namely unemployment, and that majority won with roughly 23% of the eligible vote.  In other words, they didn’t win so much as Democrats stayed home from the polls and lost.)

Multiple ironies—Gifford is a gun rights advocate.  She is a self-styled Blue Dog Democrat, a moderate to conservative politician.  She beat a Tea Party challenge—barely—because she is more or less mainstream in Arizona.  This was not an enemy in anything but party affiliation.

More ironies—Judge John Roll was killed in the shooting.  He was chief justice of the U.S. District Court in Arizona.  He was a Bush (senior) appointee and by all lights a conservative.

This is not now a liberal-conservative matter.  Sarah Palin and the Tea Party crowd are not conservatives.  George Will is a conservative.  These people are not conservatives.  They are reactionaries who have decided to use the conservative base as their vehicle to ride rough-shod over American sentiments.  All they understand is “taxes are bad” and “anything that limits my right to make millions is wrong.”  Or some combination of the two.

The philosopher Hegel characterized certain people as “clever” rather than intelligent.  He noted that there are those who exhibit the symptoms of intelligence, but in fact it is not true intelligence but a kind of animal cleverness masking as intelligence.  Shallow people who speak well and can manipulate people and systems, but who seem to, upon examination, have no real understanding of cause and consequence beyond getting for themselves what they want.  You might say amoral, but I think that misses the point.  They do what they do in order to obtain for themselves and nothing else matters.  Sociopaths fit this description.  They fail ultimately because they really don’t give a damn about the consequences of their actions—and part of their cleverness is a facility at spinning what they do to free themselves of any responsibility.  The current crop of big-mouthed right-wing ideologues fall into this handily.  They seem not to understand—or possible care—that when you flash a red cape in front of an angry bull, something is going to break.  If the bull is standing in a china shop at the time…

We are perilously close to becoming a closed society.  We already do not listen to each other if we have differing opinions.  We are becoming so entrenched in our own viewpoints, with the help of a magnificently balkanized media, that we cannot see where we are tripping over general principles in our groping after being right.  Growing up, I remember an admonition from my parents that would seem apt in this instance:  If you can’t play well with your toys, you don’t deserve them.

I have personally found the rhetoric of the right wing disturbing and sometimes reprehensible since the Eighties.  Exemplified by Rush Limbaugh, they have developed a canon of malign vitriol aimed at anything that strikes them as left or liberal or, more recently, in the least conciliatory to differing viewpoints.  They have staked their claim and made it clear they will be intolerant of any kind of bipartisanship.  The fact that the Republican Party has aligned itself with these people is a tragedy, because it has become a tar baby they are becoming increasingly bound to.  But it is not Congresses responsibility to counter them.  This is not a question of what our elected officials will do to tone down the venom, but what we will do.

My advice?   Stop listening to these assholes.

I can’t put it more civilly than that.  The Rush Limbaughs, Glenn Becks, Sea Hannitys, and Bill O’Reillys of our media landscape do not have our best interests at heart.  They are demogogues.  Insofar as there is any kind of media conspiracy, it is for one purpose only, to increase ratings and therefore marketshare, and this kind of petty, sub-intellectual reductio ad absurdum  does that very well.  Get people pissed off and they develop a taste for it.  They are no different in this regard than the Jerry Springers and all their feuding, pathetic, fame-for-fifteen-minutes-at-any-cost “guests” and as a source of information and erudition in support of a democracy they are worse than useless.  Stop feeding the animals.  Tune them out.

I know this advice will not matter to those—like Mr. Loughner—who are addicted to the apocalyptic visions generated by that kind of rhetoric.  It’s not information to them, it’s the drug for their particular monkey.  But for the rest of us?  We can do better.

Final irony for this post.  Christina Taylor Greene, the nine-year-old who was killed?  She was born on 9/11.

Congratulations, Sarah.  You have us devouring our own.


Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, ignorance, law and order, Media, Politics, Propaganda, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Mike M. says:

    Bulls-eye, Mark. That Sarah Palin ad seems like a simple and clear call to assasinate these 20 Democrats on her hit list. The territories of all these named and targeted politicians are each marked with a simulated crosshair gun scope. In my opinion it is not a subliminal suggestion by Sarah Palin, but an overt directive. She will probably change this ad to now read "16 more to go!" at the bottom. Really sickening.

  2. MikeFitz17 says:

    Since Saturday, I've read many blog posts about the reasons for the Tucson shooting rampage. There's a ton of speculation out there concerning the impact on the accused shooter of rightwing media outfits like Fox News and paranoid blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, as well as the rise of the Tea Party movement.

    All make obvious culprits, in view of the vicious feedback loop they've created — a feedback loop fueled by anti-government paranoia, bizarre conspiracy theories, false narratives of victimhood and enthusiasm for guns and violent imagery.

    For me, though, the truest reasons were uttered by Alfred, Batman's butler, in "The Dark Knight." In trying to explain The Joker's worldview, Alfred observes, "Some men aren't looking for anything logical. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn." Evil for evil's sake.

  3. Karl says:

    Read more and pontificate less.




    When someone starts looking to pull others into the work of a mentally troubled person, they have their own axe to grind, and are obviously trying to instil the same in others themselves.

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    Sadly, Mark, the people that need to read and heed your call to walk away from the frenzy-mongering opportunists will not read, or if they do, will certainly not heed.

    We are perilously close to becoming a closed society. We already do not listen to each other if we have differing opinions. We are becoming so entrenched in our own viewpoints, with the help of a magnificently balkanized media, that we cannot see where we are tripping over general principles in our groping after being right.

    As someone else observed, this incident has only widened the divide. Really, we are becoming two closed societies.

    Nice (if that's appropriate given the context) post.

  5. Dave Jenkins says:


    I would agree with your assessment and quote from Alfred. This guy was a nut-job, plain and simple. It seems he chose to latch on to some of the right-wing nut-speak out there as his personal salvation ethos, but I would imagine that it could have been rabid anti-communism back in the day, or rabid anti-capitalism in the day before that. Crazies are crazy, and any rhetoric out there that seems to put enough of the links together can get subsumed into a "greater truth" in some people's heads, I think.

    If I think of it that way, it's almost absurd that the chattering classes of partisan politics are feinting at the horrible outcomes of their on-going vilification. It's almost getting to the point where the crazy person doesn't really matter anymore, but the fact that there's a crazy person is becoming Yet Another Weapon To Throw Around in the public arena.

    I'm 8,000 miles away from this. I don't miss US mass media that much at all.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dave: I couldn't agree with you more. We don't know whether this violent young man ever followed the media at all. Why are we arguing about whose fault this is when we don't yet know the facts. It is sad to see the party-politics people are working so hard to insist that the killer belongs to the OTHER party.

      I must admit, however, that my default assumption at the moment is that this kid was revved up by the violent evidence-free rhetoric commonly heard in the media, especially from the right wing media. But I don't yet know whether this particular guy was provoked by anything other than an opportunity to be famous by killing someone famous.

      If he was not provoked by that FOX rhetoric, just wait a year or two, and that will actually happen. But again, that is a default operative assumption, not anything factual (yet).

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    My local daily paper had a well-articulated comment based on this incident:

    It will be illuminating to see how the rage industry will respond to Saturday's shootings. Vitriol pays and pays well, supporting a vast array of commentators, fundraisers and political activists who benefit by vilifying the other side.

    We would predict the left wing of the rage industry will blame the right wing for what happened Saturday, and that the right will respond by blaming the left for waving the bloody flag. It's easy to predict that because it's already happening.

    Americans of the left, of the right and of the center, and particularly those who would lead them, should take from Saturday's tragedy a new determination to treat each other civilly, even if it doesn't pay as well. To argue ideas, not personalities. To be informed by fact, not prejudice. To act, in a word, sanely.


  7. Karl says:

    Some have pointed to the fact that a libeal blogger posted a commentary (which he withdrew on Saturday)that Giffords was now "dead to him" because she did not vote for Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker of the house, and that Obama himself said back in 2008 that if they "bring a knife," we'll bring a gun.

    Not very responsible statements for media or political leaders of a free society.

    All of the media leaders I listen to do not advocate violence as the means to an end in America, I hope those you listen to don't either.

  8. Karl says:

    This is link to a story by a once strong supporter of Giffords that turned strongly against her two days before the shooting.


  9. MikeFitz17 says:

    The speculation, on TV and the Internet, concerning the motives and gripes of accused shooter Jared Loughner grinds on and on.

    We've been here before, of course, with the same sorts of speculation concerning the motives and gripes of the Fort Hood shooter, and the Kirkwood, Mo., City Hall shooter and the Virginia Tech shooter, and the two boys who shot up and bombed Columbine High School, and perpetrators of many, many less publicized massacres that have become a regular part of modern America.

    But in the end, I submit, all this speculation is meaningless unless we answer two questions that begin with the word Why:

    • "Why does America produce so many lonely, deranged men full of so much homicidal rage?"

    • "Why do these men have such easy access to so many guns and ammunition?"

    Unless we come up with real answers to these questions and endeavor to apply those answers to preventing future carnage, all this speculation, as well as the grief for the victims, rings hollow.

    I suppose the answer to the first question I posed has something to do with America's love of the frontier and the lone hero. The same social/cultural forces that produced brilliant entrepreneurs and inventors and great creative artists — the craving for success, attention and public validation, for control and dominance, the utter self-centeredness — also have some role in the creation of mass murderers, from rampaging shooters like Loughner to serial killers like John Wayne Gacy.

    As for the second question, I suppose the answer can be found somewhere amid the fact that same market forces that make the United States a Mecca of capitalism, that have given us Netflix and the iPhone, are also key to the super-abundance of guns in American culture.

    Integral to this super-abundance of firearms is a mythology that makes guns and gun rights somehow symbolic of something far more important than possession of mere piece of machinery, like a lawnmower. Guns symbolize power, control, hyper-masculinity, the spirit of America. It just feels good to own and use them. They are the original dangerous drug. A gun gives you the power to take a life, to play God.

    Which is why, I suppose, no one is proposing more restrictive gun laws in the wake of the Tucson massacre. Even the most liberal Democrats realize that more restrictive gun laws are a radioactive no-go zone, a political third rail because of the symbolic power attached to guns in the imaginations of so many Americans.

    Still, I believe more restrictive gun laws are inevitable. And I predict that a century from now, Americans will look back on the years of the early 21st Century and wonder in disbelief at the proliferation of so many firearms in our nation. They will wonder why America's guns laws were so lenient and porous, in the same way that kids today wonder how Americans of 1940s and 1950s could defend racial discrimination.

    In the days ahead, we will learn every banal detail of Loughner's life in the hours and days leading up the moment he walked up to Rep. Giffords on Saturday and began pulling the trigger. We will learn what he ate and what he said and what he posted on Facebook. The elite media — the L.A. Times, the N.Y. Times, the Wall Street Journal — are very good at that documenting this sort of thing.

    But trying to discern meaning in any of this will be pointless, in the same way that discerning meaning from the way leaves fall from the trees is pointless. I doubt if Loughner really knew what forces were driving him, other than the awareness of an extreme rage that dominated everything else in his brain.

    One of the reasons the film "Taxi Driver" still feels so contemporary and powerful, even though it was released 35 years ago, is because director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader so perfectly capture the utter alienation and isolation of the public killer. Travis Bickle, as portrayed by Robert DeNiro, inhabits his own world, with its own crazy logic. Ultimately, he finds peace and purpose in the power that comes from his guns.

    Peace and purpose. As long as other angry men find the same thing by pulling a trigger, the victims of the Tucson massacre will fade from memory, destined to join a long, long list that includes the victims of Columbine and Virginia Tech killers, as well as the victims of uncountable future massacres unless we as a society act to keep guns out of the hands of the next Jared Loughners. Any ideas?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      MikeFitz17: Thank you for the insight you have offered. I don't disagree with your analysis, but I'm often startled to think that these outbursts don't happen more often than they do. I'm amazed that, in spite of our toxic rhetoric and easily available guns, these sorts of tragic incidents don't happen much more often than they do.

  10. Karl,

    Saying someone is dead to you is not the same as saying you want someone dead. It just isn't. It is not nearly on the level of, say this:

    ‎ "I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out." —

    Glenn Beck (on air), May 17, 2005

    Sure, he was speaking metaphorically, no one took him seriously, no one reasonable would think he actually meant to do that or encourage someone to do it…

    Did he?

  11. MikeFitz17 says:

    Erich: I share your amazement that these mass shootings don't happen more often. But I think you will agree it's intolerable that these events happen as often as they do. And it's equally as repugnant that it appears American society has become acclimated to these shootings, whether the venue is the workplace or school house, as the price we pay for the "freedom" to own and use guns. That's insane. So the question remains: what can be done? If Congress is paralyzed, and a red state like Missouri will resist sane gun legislation, then what should we do? Your ideas, please.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      MikeFitz17: I didn't mean to downplay the tragedy. Yet I'm amazed that given the amount of guns out there and the number of nutcases, that we don't have more of these incidents. I'm certainly grateful that we don't have more of these incidents.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    "I'm not sure whether John Wilkes-Booth was a Republican. His shooting of Abraham Lincoln tends to indicate not. Lee Harvey-Oswald described himself as "a hunter of the fascists". That was after his defection to the Soviet Union. When Samuel Byck plotted to murder Richard Nixon, one can assume it was not Nixon's fanatical liberalism that offended him. Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr reportedly acted out of an obsession with the actress Jodie Foster. None, to my knowledge, had any connection with Sarah Palin. The reaction to Saturday's shootings in Arizona, or the left's reaction to the shootings, has been a case study in partisan, knee-jerk hysteria."


  13. The anti-spam word for this was Wow. That was my reaction to that completely a-historical paragraph.

    Was John Wilkes Booth a Republican? No, Lincoln was. Booth, if he had a political affiliation, would have been a Democrat. We forget that the Democratic Party was very right-wing in the South up till Johnson alienated them with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, at which point they all up and joined the Republican Party. Booth certainly would have been a conservative, one who supported a status quo that had been swept aside by the "radicalism" of Abraham Lincoln.

    Nixon was probably the most liberal Republican of the 20th Century. We forget that, despite his paranoia and Red-hating anti-communism, he was the president that established the EPA, exercised price controls, and created OSHA, none of which endeared him to conservatives.

    Hinckley was certifiable and likely would have tried to assassinate whatever president had been in office at the time.

    None of which has anything to do with the issue under discussion, which is the divisive, vile rhetoric that has been inundating us in this country from rightwing Talk for 30 years or more.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: Thanks for the corrections. I hope I am being clear that the nexus of causation might not be strong in the most recent shootings, that I agree with you about the toxicity of the rhetoric, especially the violent rhetoric coming from the right.

  14. Tim Hogan says:

    "We have to defeat these bastards…we have to wipe them out!" R. Limbaugh 03-22-10


    Every time they do it, report them to the FCC. Maybe the cost of hate can become prohibitive and the marketplace will dictate civility?

  15. MikeFitz17 says:

    Please read this column. Nail meet hammer. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/how_we_enable

    • Erich Vieth says:

      MikeFitz17: With that buildup, I'd love to read that article, but it seems like truthdig is having technical issues today. I'll keep trying, because they publish some excellent articles.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Now I can see the site:

    "In Arizona and many other states, madmen with a desire to kill face no obstacle in obtaining automatic weapons that they can conceal and carry. If they have the money, they can buy these sophisticated firearms—along with clips that let them fire up to 33 rounds in a matter of seconds."

    Yep, I agree. I don't want people getting their hands on these kinds of weapons for the same reason I don't want them to have the "right" to by vials of anthrax.

  17. MikeFitz17 says:

    There's another debate brewing over Jared Loughner's crimes. It centers on what type of defense his lawyers will mount.

    I think it's virtually certain that Loughner's attorneys will present an insanity defense as a way to avoid the death penalty for their client. I doubt their efforts will succeed, however. Although Loughner clearly is deeply disturbed, and in all likelihood is psychotic, and probably would've responded to treatment if he had received it, the political climate is such that no judge or jury anywhere will allow Loughner to use this defense. Insanity defenses are extremely rare to begin with — accounting for fewer than 1 percent of defendant pleas — but it's the politics of Loughner's crimes that pose the biggest challenge for him. When Loughner goes to trial — and trust me, there will be a trial, even if it takes several years to get underway — he will be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Which means the whole world will be witnessing the spectacle of an American court sending a clearly mentally ill man to Death Row, touching off another debate about our nation's enthusiasm for capital punishment.

  18. MikeFitz17 says:


    Erich: There's no way that Loughner will avoid the death penalty, especially if the trial takes place in Arizona. He killed a federal judge and a little girl, after all, plus four others, as well as nearly killing a popular member of Congress. I just don't see how he could avoid a trial that eventually ends with a death sentence. And in all likelihood, while awaiting trial, Loughner will finally receive the anti-psychotic drugs and psychiatric care that he went without for too long, and the absence of which led to his shooting rampage. That's the tragic irony of this situation. Loughner had to commit a horrible crime, claiming six innocent lives, before he finally could receive the treatment he's been needing for so long — treatment provided to him only so he can take part in the trial that will send him to the federal Death Row at Terre Haute, Indiana. There's something terribly screwed-up about this situation.

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