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WHAT MAKES CITIZENS DO THINGS! What made Loughner do what he did? Krugman seemed to know: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2011

An astounding, instructive mistake: Good lord! This morning, the New York Times published a set of nine letters about the shootings in Arizona.

Some of the letters make excellent points. We especially recommend the second letter, in which a Tucson citizen describes a “chilling experience”—the “shouting, rude, menacing individuals” he says he saw at a health care forum conducted by Gabrielle Giffords.

That said, the eighth letter contained an astounding editorial error. On-line, the Times has now disappeared its mistake. But this is the way the letter appears in our hard-copy paper:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (1/11/11): Since the 2008 election, the United States has witnessed a census worker hanged in Kentucky with “Fed” scrawled across his chest and recurrent images of armed protesters at rallies.

More disturbing, we have also encountered candidates like Sharron Angle mulling the possibility of “Second Amendment remedies” to “turn this country around” and Sarah Palin, having identified elected officials on her “target list” with cross hairs, calling for conservatives to “reload.”

At no time since the 1960s has there been an American political climate in which threats of antigovernment violence, whether literal or rhetorical, have been more in vogue.

Surely we can all agree that it is past the time for elected leaders, activist groups and the media to insist on zero tolerance and greater public censure for such discourse, and not simply for the tragedies that proceed from it.

We agree with the bulk of that letter. But good lord! That opening paragraph!

As we noted in real time (in 2009), some liberals seemed to be thrilled when that census worker was found dead in Kentucky. In at least one unfortunate case, the desire to make hay of this death was aggressively pimped at the highest level of the burgeoning liberal world. But as it turned out, that census worker had hanged himself; he had scrawled the word “Fed” across his chest to make his suicide seem like a murder, thus letting his son collect insurance.

Plainly, this was a deeply troubled person; his death was a tragic event. That said, he assumed the world would buy his con, given the shape of some long-standing narratives. This morning, the Times has bought his con again, fourteen months after Kentucky state police explained what actually happened (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/09).

Everybody can make a mistake. This mistake shows the resilience of beloved novels, even among those on our side.

One more point: For what it’s worth, those “recurrent images of armed protesters at rallies” weren’t really all that recurrent—unless you take your images from Hardball, whose unprepared host never tires of citing those taped, well-loved events.

WHAT MAKES CITIZENS DO THINGS (permalink): Was Jared Loughner influenced by the angry, violence-tinged political rhetoric of the past few years? Was he thus driven to commit the murders he has now committed in Tucson?

Almost surely, there will never be any real way to answer that particular question. That said, the political turmoil seems to have been especially bad in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ House district. In this morning’s New York Times, a Giffords “friend and fund-raiser” offers an explanation for the worsening “animosity” of the past few years:

NAGOURNEY (1/11/11): [Giffords’] re-election last year was in part a testimony to her personal popularity as well as her ability to present herself as a moderate. In one sign of her refusal to be lumped with liberals in Congress, she voted against Nancy Pelosi to become the Democratic leader in the new Congress. But it also reflected what was, for her, a bit of luck in facing an opponent with such strong ties to the Tea Party, which complicated his effort to attract Democratic independent voters.

Her campaign aides said Ms. Giffords said the political tension was hardly comfortable. “That was a little disorienting for her,” said Michael McNulty, who was her campaign chairman, adding: “there would be a thousand people screaming about it and having at her one after another after another.” Mr. Warne said the situation worsened as the economy deteriorated. “We could feel a lot of things building up and a lot of animosity due to the economy,” he said.

Adam Nagourney’s writing is unclear in the highlighted passage. But McNulty may be referring to the type of raucous behavior which prevailed at town hall meetings all over the country in the summer of 2009. Meanwhile, in the highlighted passage, Warne attributes this raucous conduct—and the growing “animosity” in Giffords’ district—to the failing economy.

Presumably, Warne’s explanation is partly correct. Presumably, there would have been less animosity in Giffords’ district, and around the country, during better economic times. That said, Paul Krugman offered a different explanation for the general rise in animosity in yesterday’s New York Times. In the process, he cited a striking news report from Politico in May of last year:

KRUGMAN (1/10/11): Last spring Politico.com reported on a surge in threats against members of Congress, which were already up by 300 percent. A number of the people making those threats had a history of mental illness—but something about the current state of America has been causing far more disturbed people than before to act out their illness by threatening, or actually engaging in, political violence.

And there’s not much question what has changed. As Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff responsible for dealing with the Arizona shootings, put it, it’s “the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.” The vast majority of those who listen to that toxic rhetoric stop short of actual violence, but some, inevitably, cross that line.

The word “already” may be slightly misleading. But that Politico report is well worth reading. Just click here.

Krugman describes the rise in threats against members of Congress, but he offers a different explanation from Warne for this animosity. Quoting Sheriff Dupnik, Krugman says there’s “not much question” about what has caused the rise in threats. He then blames “the vitriolic rhetoric” being pimped by a range of press figures.

For ourselves, we’d assume that this explanation is part of the story, along with Warne’s explanation about the economy. For ourselves, though, we’d speak with a bit less certainty than Krugman does. In the past few days, liberals have adopted Dupnik as the oracle of Tucson; we’ve done this because he said something here that perfectly fits one of our leading narratives. In adopting him as a seer, we ignore his other pronouncements about immigration, at least one of which went well beyond Arizona’s SB1070 in the way it advised the targeting of Hispanics. Are we sure that Dupnik is such a seer, given this other statement? At times like this, such questions fade. We tend to advertise the statements which resonate with our preferred narratives.

Has the gruesome political climate of the past several years contributed to all those threats? We would assume that it has. Meanwhile, that “climate of hate” (and stupidity) deserves to be challenged, even if it hasn’t. (More on that point tomorrow.) But liberals sometimes trade away their persuasive power when they overstate what they know. Indeed, at the start of his column, Krugman even seems to offer a specific explanation for Loughner’s act of mass murder:

KRUGMAN: When you heard the terrible news from Arizona, were you completely surprised? Or were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?

Put me in the latter category. I’ve had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach ever since the final stages of the 2008 campaign. I remembered the upsurge in political hatred after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992—an upsurge that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. And you could see, just by watching the crowds at McCain-Palin rallies, that it was ready to happen again. The Department of Homeland Security reached the same conclusion: in April 2009 an internal report warned that right-wing extremism was on the rise, with a growing potential for violence.

Conservatives denounced that report. But there has, in fact, been a rising tide of threats and vandalism aimed at elected officials, including both Judge John Roll, who was killed Saturday, and Representative Gabrielle Giffords. One of these days, someone was bound to take it to the next level. And now someone has.

It’s true. There does seem to have been “a rising tide of threats and vandalism aimed at elected officials.” But was Loughner actually part of that tide? Did he act because of that rising tide?

In this passage, Krugman seems to imply that he did. But do we actually know that?

In the realm of mainstream press discourse, Krugman has been the liberal world’s most valuable player for the past dozen years. Here’s our question: Did he possibly trade away some influence when he seemed to overstate the things he can actually know? A similar question came to mind when he read Gail Collins’ column in Monday’s Times. (This only matters if you care about long-term solutions and outcomes.)

Dropping her simpering nonsense for once, Collins made a perfectly sensible suggestion. Alas! This made us consider the reasons why many Americans might be reluctant to listen to what she said.

Tomorrow: Would you listen to Collins? Also: What Dionne said.