Loughner ‘influenced by Internet’s political extremism'

ADL official says while extreme right-wing groups might not have caused Arizona shooter's actions, they could inform target of his angry rampage.

Gabrielle Giffords (photo credit: AP)
Gabrielle Giffords
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – Hours after the news broke that Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several bystanders had been shot in Tucson, media commentators were already drawing links between roiling right-wing political rhetoric and the attack.
It later emerged that despite suspect Jared Loughner’s extensive written and verbal ramblings – some of which touch on political issues but most of which are merely meandering, incoherent and deeply disturbed – there are so far no apparent affiliations between him and any extremist group.
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But that doesn’t mean there’s no connection between Loughner and swelling Internet activity from extremists and violence-filled rhetoric, according to experts in domestic extremism and hate crimes.
“It’s clear he’s crazy,” said Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center. But she continued to say that those ideas reflect extremist thinking.
“He’s imbibed the ideas from the radical right,” she said.
Beirich pointed to themes like the unconstitutionality of certain elected officials, particularly from law enforcement, and his focus on currency as tropes that right-wing extremists have introduced.
While these groups might not have caused his actions, she said, they could inform the target of his angry rampage.
“Clearly he was very... influenced by the rhetoric on the Internet,” Deborah Lauter, who overseas the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said of Loughner’s computer postings and activities. “We believe he certainly was influenced to act out on his distress by the general tenor.”
Lauter said that historically as extremist rhetoric increases, so do violent acts, even if it’s hard to trace the origins of specific incidents.
“From experience and looking at history, in the rhetoric that individuals and groups use about certain issues, when you see the level of vitriol and angst rise, you get the sense that someone somewhere is going to act on it,” she said.
Though there hasn’t been an increase in political murders by right-wing groups as tracked by the ADL in the last few years, Lauter said the activity of these groups and their “chatter” has increased tremendously.
According to Beirich, the number of extremist groups has mushroomed from 149 to 511 just between 2008 and 2009, creating a much more disturbed environment.
“We think that words have consequences,” she said. “When you demonize people or certain types of groups, you tend to get violence.”
She pointed to the use of violent imagery even in the mainstream media and from politicians, almost entirely on the right side of the spectrum, as an indication that this practice is growing.
Lauter attributed the increased agitation, which began to skyrocket in early 2009, to the election of an African-American president, tensions over immigration and the downturn in the economy.
And in novel and increasing ways, violent imagery has become part of mainstream political discourse as well.
“There’s a turn we’ve seen in the rhetoric toward violent symbolism,” according to Daniel Shea, director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, who stressed emphatically that he wasn’t drawing any connection between that political rhetoric and the actions of Loughner.
Shea characterized the country as “in the midst of a transformation. Our rhetoric has become sharper, more intense and much harsher than in the recent past.”
It’s a trend which he said predated 2008 and was visible on the left as well as the right, pointing to politicians talking of “eliminating” the competition and increasingly framing policy disagreements in terms of trampling citizens’ rights – turning opponents’ policies into instruments of oppression rather than simply wrongheadedness.
Shea said that while other periods of American history have also seen political fervor and vilification – the McCarthy, civil rights and Vietnam eras, for instance – today’s intensification is accompanied by the use of new media in a way that has amplified extreme voices and scrambled outcomes.
He pointed to a reemergence of a partisan press and an unfettered forum on the Internet for the most committed at both ends of the spectrum that has become self-reinforcing, with the most agitated and extreme views getting a disproportionate amount of attention.
In addition, according to Indiana University political science Prof. Michael Wolf, who works with Shea on a project tracking civility in American politics, the political parties’ increasing breakdown along geographic lines, leading to more homogenized districts – not to mention gerrymandering – has helped fuel more hard-line voices. Taken together, he said, the situation rewards more extreme voices and doesn’t provide incentives for politicians to moderate.
He pointed to elections this decade where Democrats who backed the Iraq war lost primaries and Republicans had to stake out even more conservative positions on the economy to make it to the general election.
Wolf also emphasized that these are areas of serious policy disagreement rather than trivial matters, and they have been intensified by the recession and two grinding wars.
But even though voters have mostly continued to reward more extreme candidates, Wolf did see hope for a quieting down of some of the most extreme rhetoric.
For one thing, the surveys conducted by Wolf and Shea pointed to disaffection with what the public sees as a trend of incivility.

And the timing of the tragedy could be particularly impactful. Wolf noted it came as the new Congress was about to have its first full week in session, when Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives were set to hold a symbolic vote repealing health care reform and take other actions to distinguish themselves from Democrats that would generally set the tone for the coming term. Instead, partisan work has been scrapped in favor of resolutions honoring the dead and other events related to the Arizona attack.
Additionally, in a couple of weeks, the president will deliver the State of the Union address, and Wolf suggested that too might be an opportunity to stake out a more unified national, as opposed to partisan, agenda.
“If the framework can be moving toward consensus, this could be an event to move it in that direction – not that anyone would have chosen it,” he said.