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The Tucson Shooter and Arizona Politics

If the political climate played a role—a big if—no one should pretend left and right were equally responsible.

Perhaps the stupidest and least surprising comment about the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson came from New York Times columnist Matt Bai. Bai, the author of an interesting book about Democratic politics, analyzed the political environment—the universe of discourse that framed the alleged attempt at assassination by Arizonan Jared Lee Loughner. Here is what he wrote:

Within minutes of the first reports Saturday that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and a score of people with her had been shot in Tucson, pages began disappearing from the Web. One was Sarah Palin’s infamous “cross hairs” map from last year, which showed a series of contested Congressional districts, including Ms. Giffords’s, with gun targets trained on them. Another was from Daily Kos, the liberal blog, where one of the congresswoman’s apparently liberal constituents declared her “dead to me” after Ms. Giffords voted against Nancy Pelosi in House leadership elections last week.

The implication is that Giffords’s assassination arose in the context of both right-wing and left-wing attacks on her, and that the onus of changing the political rhetoric of violence falls equally on the right and the left.

Now, it may turn out that Loughner was inspired by some nutty far-left blog that advocated killing Democratic Blue Dogs, of which Giffords was one. But if you look broadly at today’s political discourse, as Bai purports to do, what you find is that gun, warrior, murder, mayhem, and generally Armageddon-like, apocalyptic rhetoric is virtually monopolized by right-wing organizations, talk-show hosts, and politicians. That is not saying that the right always monopolizes the rhetoric of violence. Certainly it has in the South, but in different eras, the left rather than the right has had the franchise in the far west and the north. Think, for instance, of the late ‘60s. But in the last two years, there is no contest.

Bai’s examples are ridiculous. Palin’s crosshairs, aimed at Giffords’s district, certainly conjure up a rifle or bomb sight. But the metaphor on Daily Kos—that Giffords after a vote is “dead to me”—is straight out of family wills. It is what a parent says to a prodigal child. The metaphor has nothing to do with killing.

I spent some time in Giffords’s district in Tucson in the fall of 2005. For two decades, it had been represented by moderate Republican Jim Kolbe, who was pro-immigrant and allied with Senator John McCain. The district is about one-fifth Hispanic. It includes many of the professionals from the University of Arizona, but also white middle-class East Tucson, and largely rural Cochise County, which borders Mexico. In 2004, right-wing anti-immigrant activist Randy Graf challenged Kolbe and got 43 percent of the primary vote. (I use anti-immigrant advisedly. What I found in Arizona is that among the activists, opposition to illegal immigration shades into opposition to Mexican and Central American immigrants.)

Graf had been a leader on Arizona’s Proposition 200, which, among other things, made it more difficult for the state’s Hispanics to vote. At the time I interviewed him, he was getting ready to claim Kolbe’s seat in the 2006 elections. He struck me as a standard-issue, right-wing conspiratorial nut. He blamed Kolbe’s lenient views of immigration on his membership in the Council on Foreign Relations (which he referred cryptically as the “CFR.”) Giffords defeated Graf by 54 to 42 percent. Graf’s share of the vote indicated the scope of hard-core anti-immigration sentiment in the district.

I visited the district last spring and went to a town-hall meeting held by former Congressman J.D. Hayworth, who was running for Senate against McCain. Various kooky subjects got aired, including a supposed FDA war on vitamins, but the meeting basically focused on the threat of illegal immigrants flooding Arizona—at a time when illegal immigration was down drastically because of the recession. In last fall’s election, Giffords’s opponent, Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly, focused on illegal immigration and almost defeated Giffords.

Arizona’s preoccupation with illegal immigration, and its other right-wing enthusiasms, were tempered in the past by Arizona’s business leaders and by a group of Arizona Democrats and moderate Republicans, often led by McCain. In the late ‘80s, when Republican Governor Evan Meacham cancelled the state’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the same group of politicians and business leaders intervened. And while she was governor, Democrat Janet Napolitano kept the right’s passions somewhat in check.

But last year, the nuts gained control of the asylum, and McCain himself resigned his position as supervisor to join the inmates in yelling and screaming about big government, Mexification, and whatever other thing popped into their brains. McCain campaigned with Giffords’s opponent Kelly, who besides focusing on the immigrant threat, also wanted to get rid of Social Security and Medicare. Given the absence of adult supervision, Arizona has become a haven for the radical right.

We still don’t know what motivated Giffords’s alleged assassin, Loughner. But if his act does turn out to have been shaped by a dominant political environment, it was not that of the left. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik summed it up: “The bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” he said yesterday. “And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.