Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Will No One Rid Us of These Meddlesome Messiahs?

Henry Plantagenet, King of England and Normandy in the tumultuous second half of the 12th century, brooked little dissent. Imprisoning even his own sons and his wife when he suspected them of plotting against him, the only real opposition he faced came from his former friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.  He had originally appointed him as his placeman, but Becket soon proved far from compliant and Henry was infamously heard to mutter "Is there no one who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

Taking him at his word, four knights rode to Canterbury and dramatically slaughtered the Archbishop at the altar of his cathedral . Henry duly professed his horror and did his penance, even submitting to being scourged by the Pope’s representatives. How could they possibly have thought he meant what he said?

Echoing down through the centuries, the story of Henry and Becket seems very relevant to the last fortnight with first the assassination of Pakistani politician Salman Taseer and then the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, which claimed the lives of six bystanders. Although thousands of miles apart, the two stories have many similarities, not least the atmosphere of fear and loathing in contemporary politics in both increasingly religiously fundamentalist countries.

In Pakistan, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province was shot dead by one of his bodyguards who had taken umbrage at his campaign to repeal Pakistan's blasphemy laws. These make any criticism of the Prophet Mohamed an offence punishable by death - leading to a number of exceedingly spurious cases where people have been accused of blasphemy for totally unrelated reasons. In one recent case, a low caste Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who offered water to  higher caste Muslim women was charged with insulting the Prophet and is currently under sentence of death. Taseer took up her case, among others, and has paid for it with his life.
Salman Taseer

His opponents have equivocated - not endorsing the gunman, but not exactly condemning him either. Taseer should have been more careful about what he said, should have considered people's feelings, they suggest. It might be terrible that he had been shot, but, the implication is, perhaps he really brought it on himself. Indeed, the assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been lauded by many as a hero, standing up for traditional values and Taseer's friends have been warned not to mourn him.

Thousands of miles away in Arizona, a lone gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, loaded himself up with ammo and strolled down to a local "open day" for the public to meet their elected representatives. Targeting Democrat Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he shot her in the head and sprayed his bullets into the crowd. He killed six people, including a 9 year old girl, and wounded 14 more before being overpowered. Remarkably, although a bullet traversed the length of her brain, surgeons hold out the prospect of a good recovery for Gabrielle Giffords. But the health of American politics is another matter entirely.

Angry America: Tea Party protesting for traditional values
The would-be assassin has turned out to be a loner, but one steeped in the Internet rage of the US Rightwing. Recently coalesced around the informal (but well funded) Tea Party movement headed by former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the far Right in the States has a large and growing coalition of the angry. Since the laws on bias in news reporting were removed by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, the sensationalist rightwing "shock jocks" of American radio and cable TV, like Glenn Beck, have surged both in popularity and in brazen lies. They have, among other tactics, demonised swathes of the population - Hispanics, blacks and Muslims especially to tarnish them somehow as un-American fifth columnists. They have insinuated that both Bill and Hilary Clinton were involved in murder and extortion on their rise to the Whitehouse. Apoplexy reigned when Obama won the Presidency in spite of their best efforts to throw everything at him from not being a true American citizen (giving rise to the Birther Movement), to being a secret Muslim and organising concentration camps for imprisoning conservatives.

The bankrupt ignorance of their cause peaked during the health debate with ludicrous monikers used to describe Obama such as "Communist Nazi". Sadly, their strategy worked and in November last year the Republicans won a significant victory in the House of Representatives, though not the landslide some had anticipated.

Palin's cross hairs target map
But worst of all has been Palin and her acolytes - like many on the radical right using a collection of pseudo-religious and military rhetoric to describe the alleged threats to their country and the response they desire. While often not indulging herslef, she has done nothing to temper or rein in her acolytes and associaes as they rail on about "Armageddon America", the End of Days, 30,000 guillotines purchased to behead Obama's opponents, the New World Order Conspiracy, the sinister Black Helicopters, all of course underpinned by Islam's alleged desire to destroy the USA. Breathtakingly, Trent Humphries, one of the Arizona Tea Party's founders, has even described their movement as a co-victim of the shootings, shamefully disrespecting the deaths and injuries of the real victims.

And the response they prescribe? Time to go on crusade; time to fight; time to target opponents, as in the now infamous cross-hair campaign map published by Palin with Giffords' name shown as a through a rifle-sight. And Giffords own local opponent had encouraged voters to join him in firing machine guns to show their determination to "take back" their state:  "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

"Satan" Obama
The BBC in is quaintly impartial way has struggled to emphasise that both sides of the political debate in America are increasingly divided from each other and strident in their rhetoric. Maybe; but there is no doubt that it is the radical right wingers who are taking this to the extreme, cranking up rhetoric and undermining both rational debate and encouraging violence. Again and again, it is the radical Right who are found with people in their ranks with obsessions with guns and a propensity to violence. Even in the UK, while hundreds of thousands of pounds of police money are wasted funding agents provocateurs to spy on climate demonstrators and students, it is extreme right wing BNP members and sympathisers who are letting off nail bombs to kill blacks and gay people, or pouring petrol through letter boxes to burn out asylum seekers. I can't recall the last time a liberal was convicted for shooting an opponent, burning property or planning explosions in public places. 

The Arizona gunman almost certainly worked alone and may indeed have mental health problems - but can his ramblings about the American Government and his violence really be divorced from a political atmosphere where it is acceptable to denigrate the President as a traitor because he wants to extend healthcare to poor people? Was he somehow immune to a culture which stigmatises those who do not agree with Palin and her acolytes as conspirators against the Nation under God? Not only Communist - but blasphemers and heretics to boot?

Henry may have genuinely regretted Becket's death, but it was the atmosphere of violence around his Court, created by him, that made it happen. Similarly, Palin and the Tea Party may equally regret the Arizona massacre, but they too need to reflect on their words and actions, and how these have fostered a bellicose zeitgeist where the bullet is as valid as the ballot. They aspire to lead a movement, and consequently they must shoulder responsibility for it too. Likewise, the leaders of Pakistan's teetering democracy need to make clear that violence has no place in their politics. Clauswitz described war as "the continuation of politics by other means". In the hysterical, conflict-charged culture of contemporary politics, we must not allow those with sinister agendas to turn politics into war by other means.

So how far have we come since Henry's knights rode like Sauron's Orcs to do their Master's dirty deed for him in Canterbury Cathedral that dark evening in 1170?  And in such an atmosphere where well-funded, well-organised populists see democracy as just one of several tools to gain and keep power, how long will it be before they saddle up and once again ride out to do their Masters' (or Mistresses') unholy bidding?


  1. I'm sorry, but this column is filled with misinformation, lies and stereotyping.

    The man is mentally ill. He's not right wing - he's never been right wing. He was liberal in high school and college, and he began his slide into another reality in 2007. He was carrying a grudge against the congresswoman since 2007, and that is why he shot her. It had absolutely NOTHING to do with current political agendas or rhetoric.

    Oh, and he shot with a semi-automatic pistol and he wounded 14, not 30.

  2. Anna, I stand corrected on the numbers injured, which is an unforgivable mistake on my part. Thanks for pointing it out.

    On culpability though, the point is not was he acting on behalf of anyone else, which is almost certainly not the case, nor that he is not mentally ill - I do put that forward as a possibility - but rather that he does not live in a vacuum. With the rhetoric of violence coming from many on the far Right mixed with the US gun culture, the whole point I am making is that political leaders need to accept the potential consequences of their rhetoric and style: that is, that someone, whether for mental health reasons or for other reasons, draws encouragement from their extreme conflictual approach to carry out some horrendous act such as this one.

    His own political views do appear to have moved increasingly to the Right over time, especially on aspects of the Constitution, but as much as anything the issue is whether or not in such a hostile political atmosphere, particular political views by default grant permission to people with mindsets like Loughner to see some people as valid targets.

    Consider this column: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jan/11/sarah-palin-presidential-hopes-arizona-shootings?INTCMP=SRCH

  3. "...but rather that he does not live in a vacuum"

    Yes, he does live in a vacuum.

    He is a paranoid schizophrenic who hallucinates, believes that his real life is in his dreams and that he if he can control his dreams, he can control his life.

    He believes he can set up an alternate utopian universe where he creates his own language, currency and time system.

    He believes that the government is using mind control on him.

    He fostered hatred for the congresswoman for more than three years because she failed to answer a question he asked her. The question was gibberish to her, but it made perfect sense to him and he has hated her for ignoring it.

    There is a lot of information out there on this man, and there is ZERO evidence that he was influenced by current political rhetoric.

    It's appalling that everyone immediately assigned blame because on pure speculation and their own political agendas.

    It's even more appalling that people are focusing on their twisted attempts to drive a false narrative instead of focusing on the heroes in the tragedy, the lives that were lost, and a city that is in mourning.

  4. January 11, 2011
    Police Say They Visited Tucson Suspect’s Home Even Before Rampage

    This article is by Jo Becker, Kirk Johnson and Serge F. Kovaleski.

    TUCSON — The police were sent to the home where Jared L. Loughner lived with his family on more than one occasion before the attack here on Saturday that left a congresswoman fighting for her life and six others dead, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said on Tuesday.

    A spokesman, Jason Ogan, said the details of the calls were being reviewed by legal counsel and would be released as soon as the review was complete. He said he did not know what the calls were about — they could possibly have been minor, even trivial matters — or whether they involved Jared Loughner or another member of the household.

    A friend of Mr. Loughner’s also said in an interview on Tuesday that Mr. Loughner, 22, was skilled with a gun — as early as high school — and had talked about a philosophy of fostering chaos.

    The news of police involvement with the Loughners suggests that county sheriff’s deputies were at least familiar with the family, even if the reason for their visits was unclear as of Tuesday night.

    The account by Mr. Loughner’s friend, a rare extended interview with someone close to Mr. Loughner in recent years, added some details to the emerging portrait of the suspect and his family.

    “He was a nihilist and loves causing chaos, and that is probably why he did the shooting, along with the fact he was sick in the head,” said Zane Gutierrez, 21, who was living in a trailer outside Tucson and met Mr. Loughner sometimes to shoot at cans for target practice.

    The Loughner family released a statement on Tuesday, its first since the attacks, expressing — in a six-line document handed to reporters outside their house — sorrow for the losses experienced by the victims and their families.

    “It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday,” the statement said. “There are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We wish that there were, so we could make you feel better.”

    The new details from Mr. Gutierrez about Mr. Loughner — including his philosophy of anarchy and his expertise with a handgun, suggest that the earliest signs of behavior that may have ultimately led to the attacks started several years ago.

    Mr. Gutierrez said his friend had become obsessed with the meaning of dreams and their importance. He talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Will To Power” and embraced ideas about the corrosive, destructive effects of nihilism — a belief in nothing. And every day, his friend said, Mr. Loughner would get up and write in his dream journal, recording the world he experienced in sleep and its possible meanings.

    “Jared felt nothing existed but his subconscious,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “The dream world was what was real to Jared, not the day-to-day of our lives.”

    And that dream world, his friend said, could be downright strange.

    “He would ask me constantly, ‘Do you see that blue tree over there?’ He would admit to seeing the sky as orange and the grass as blue,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.”

    He added that Mr. Loughner “used the word hollow to describe how fake the real world was to him.”

    As his behavior grew more puzzling to his friends, he was getting better with a pistol. Starting in high school, Mr. Loughner honed his marksmanship with a 9-millimeter pistol, the same caliber weapon used in the attack Saturday, until he became proficient at handling the weapon and firing it quickly.

    “If he had a gun pointed at me, there is nothing I could do because he would make it count,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “He was quick.”

    He also said that Mr. Loughner had increasing trouble interacting in social settings — during one party, for instance, Mr. Loughner retreated upstairs alone to a room and was found reading a dictionary.

    continued on next post

  5. Please read this article. It explains the situation quite well, and uses first hand sources:


  6. Anna I read the article and feel it gives no information other than that he comes from a fairly dysfunctional family. It says he was referred onto a drug eduction programme for offenders with no history of violence or serious mental illness.

    The descriptors of his behaviour do suggest he is ill - and you may be correct in your diagnosis, but it is still your assumption rather than a medical fact. Schizophrenia in any case is a condition which normally comes in cycles rather than presents as a static, permanent condition and so to assume as you do that he is not influenced by what is happening around him is speculative in the extreme. In my original post, one of the points I was making was that in an atmosphere of extreme conflict-oriented rhetoric, some people may view this as the actual desire of the speaker - hence the example of King Henry - regardless of the speaker's actual intent. As such, those who venture into public life and discourse should consider carefully the impact of inflammatory rhetoric and actions such as Jesse Kelly's frankly bizarre stunt with firing guns as part of an election campaign.