One week before the birthday of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophet of nonviolence who was assassinated in 1968, the nation is shaken by the shooting of a United States congressional representative that also resulted in 18 victims shot, including the deaths of six people – including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl. The carnage took place at a public event where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was holding a town hall type event to meet her constituents.
The Arizona massacre comes against the backdrop of a state that has become a haven for hate, where politicians have increased the ire of voters against Mexican immigrants and have pursued policies that are nakedly discriminatory and hateful toward people of color. Just last week the state upheld a new policy that makes the teaching of ethnic studies (www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2010/1231/Ethnic-studies-classes-illegal-in-Arizona-public-schools-as-of-Jan.-1) in public schools illegal – a move aimed in particular at Mexican Americans. The law was pushed by newly elected Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne. Arizona had previously approved a law that allowed law enforcement agents to profile individuals on the suspicion of their being an illegal immigrant. The major provisions of that law are on hold as its constitutionality is reviewed by federal courts. Some Arizona state lawmakers are among those who have called for an end to automatic citizenship to American born children of illegal immigrants. The harsh rhetoric against the health care reform unleashed a wave of anger in the state, including having individuals brandishing firearms in public, a legal right in the state, at an event where President Obama was speaking. Arizona has become the epicenter of white resistance in the 21st century.
The hate is not confined to Arizona. Last week packages containing explosives were sent to three locations in Maryland. The Secretary for Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, was the apparent intended target of one of the packages. Members of Congress who supported the health care reform legislation received death threats, and one – Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, was spat upon by protesters and Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, was called a nigger (thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/88041-cbc-member-says-health-bill-protesters-called-rep-lewis-the-n-word) by Tea Party protesters on Capitol Hill. Both Cleaver and Lewis are African-American. Members of Congress have noted the angrier tone of the public and have reported receiving threats, more so than normal. As public civility deteriorates, there is ample evidence, including a 2009 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/splc-report-return-of-the-militias) that details the resurgence of the militia movement in the United States. While politicians have used anti-Islamic rhetoric to posture on the issue of terrorism, the real threat is apparent – homegrown hate that is being driven by the nation’s changing demographics and encouraged by political opportunists.
While xenophobia has been a part of American culture for decades, there has been a noticeable increase in the vitriol since the election of the nation’s first Black President in November 2008. The emergence into political “respectability” of a Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008 is a direct consequence of the “stirring of the pot” by politicians seeking to exploit the ignorance and bias of some Americans. It is evident in the so-called “Patriots” movement where armed citizens attempt to police the nation’s borders against illegal immigrants and hide behind the Second Amendment. The “birthers” movement arose as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s citizenship, despite overwhelming evidence of the President’s birth in Hawaii. The Tea Party is built on a foundation of anger against the President and is virtually all-white in orientation despite its leaders claim that race is not a motivating factor in its existence. The Republican Party rode this wave of anger to victory and won control of the House of Representatives on the simple premise that it was intent on undoing the landmark health care reform legislation championed by President Obama. The new House majority intended to make repeal of the health care reform law its first priority. That was the case until Rep. Giffords was shot, and now the Republican leadership has delayed debate on a possible repeal.
The Arizona shooting might mark a turning point in the nation’s political orientation. Previous incidents of violence sparked momentary outrage but the death of a 9-year-old child in the Giffords shooting may provide the symbolic muscle to force a substantive and consequential debate on the ideological direction of the country. It could not only have an impact on political discourse, but could also change the tenor around gun control, an issue that some mayors across the country have taken up due to the flow of illegal firearms across state borders. At the same time, the tragedy in Arizona might refocus the nation on domestic terrorism, a threat that has been overshadowed by the emotional pull of September 11, 2001 but remains a potent weapon to undermine civic order. The Arizona massacre and the Oklahoma City federal building bombing now serve as bookends for a series of events tied to internal threats against the nation’s security. The reverse could also be true. A public overwhelmed and under economic strain might express momentary outrage but then retreat, too personally overwhelmed to consider the larger implications of our nation’s chaotic and violent descent.