The Real Message of Jared Loughner
I think that questions about Loughner's mindset are legitimate, even if I don't agree with the concurrent calls to regulate political speech. But I also think they obscure a bigger point. What's really scary about Loughner is not that he might have been influenced by conservative politicians or pundits. It's that increasingly powerful conservative extremists -- some of whom occupy the halls of the federal government -- subscribe to the same delusions he does. Consider:
Jared Loughner has some strange ideas...
Almost nothing is known yet about Loughner's personal views on politics and government. But the little that we do know is telling. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center has written a straightforward and informed analysis of Loughner's YouTube ramblings. This stuff would strike most people as incoherent gibberish, but for those with ears to hear, Loughner's online manifesto hits some familiar notes.
Principal among them are his concern about "currency that's not backed by gold and silver," and beliefs that the federal government controls people through the use of grammar. As Potok notes, the former is a boilerplate notion of the radical right, closely linked to conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve being run by shadowy international bankers. The latter is a yet more abstruse conspiracy theory espoused by David Wynn Miller.
Both ideas are cherished by the Patriot movement, a loose grouping of right-wing extremists that trace their roots to the militia activities of the 1990s. As has been well-documented, "Patriot" ideas have been extremely influential in the contemporary right-wing movement known as the Tea Party, and have often been championed by some of the Tea Party's heroes, such as Ron and Rand Paul.
... quite similar to those of Ron Paul.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) in particular is well known for his view that American currency is illegal since it is not backed by gold or silver, and makes no bones about his desire to abolish the Federal Reserve. It's worth noting that the Tea Party movement was launched at a Dec. 16, 2007 event for Paul's presidential campaign; stumping for his dad back then, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), now the Tea Party's poster-boy, argued that secret plans exist to build a NAFTA Superhighway servicing a North American Union of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
If this kind of stuff sounds crazy to you, you're not alone. As The New Yorker reported in an excellent story on the Tea Party's ideological roots, former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, a conservative Republican who lost his primary re-election to Tea Party favorite Trey Gowdy, was himself alarmed at the sudden popularity of clinically paranoid ideas in American politics:
To his amazement, Inglis was confronted on the campaign trail by voters who were convinced that numbers on their Social Security cards indicated that a secret bank had bought them at birth. "And then, of course," he recalls, "it turned into something about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergers and all that stuff."
Had Loughner lived in South Carolina, would it have been hard to picture him among those delusional souls? There's no evidence that his rampage was inspired by the radical right's rhetoric, and even if it was, attempts to muzzle that rhetoric's purveyors are the wrong answer. But I don't think this should prevent any thinking person from being alarmed, immediately, that the radical right's idées fixes are so readily apparent in the insane Internet ramblings of an alleged killer. The debate of the moment shouldn't be about whether political speech leads to political violence, but about what it says that, in the Arizona shootings, political speech and political violence sprang from the same philosophical fount.
Whether or not he ever listened to Beck or saw Palin's infamous target map, Loughner seems to have bought into the same principles that have fueled the ascent of the Republican Party's fringe: Seething distrust of government, the fetishization of deadly weapons inconceivable to the authors of the Second Amendment, and alternative histories of American politics that seek to justify such attitudes. Whether Palin and her Tea Party foot soldiers like it or not, Loughner has shown us something about the sort of minds in which these ideas take root.