On January 8, 2011, Gabrielle Giffords, an American congresswoman, was shot in the head in a mass shooting at a political meet-and-greet event. Nineteen people were shot and six have died at this point — including Arizona’s chief federal judge and a nine year old girl.
Giffords was a Democrat and has drawn negative attention from Republicans for supporting Obama’s health care bill. Thus, for example, she is listed on Sarah Palin’s target list (which, by the way, placed cross-hairs over Giffords location and employed a fair amount of gun-based rhetoric — oh, and at the same time as posting this list to her facebook, Palin tweeted, “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”).
Giffords’ office was also targeted last March when a glass door and window were found smashed, either by boot or by bullet. She is not alone in this regard. Four other Democrat offices had windows smashed on the same day. Around ten others received death threats. To pick a few examples: Nancy Pelosi was personally threatened on the phone by a man who said he would burn her house down; a Democrat in New York, Louise Slaughter, had the lives of her and her children threatened; another Democrat in Virginia, Tom Perriello, received death threats and a member of the Tea Party tried to post his address online and encouraged others to stop by to express their “gratitude” to him; and so on.
As of yet, nothing is known of the political position that the shooter, Jared Loughner, may or may not have held. What is apparent is that he is probably quite unwell mentally and that he may have acted with the assistance of another older male accomplice.
However, regardless of the stance(s) taken by Loughner and his possible accomplice, it is clear the the violence enacted on January 8th fits with the criteria and goals of the Tea Party and the Right of America’s Republican party. To borrow the language of Hardt and Negri, this is an example of the sort of populist violence that may occur when “the people” rise in order to reassert traditional relationships of privilege, property and power. Over against the creative resistance offered by “the multitude,” this sort of violence is not liberating but only further deepens the oppression of those who are lashing out against their perceived enemies.
Of course, it is appropriate for Americans to feel betrayed by the Obama administration and the Democratic party. Obama played off the hope of the voters (who were audacious enough to vote for him) but only continued to further the agendas of the transnational corporate power-players of global capitalism. Instead of “fixing” America, Obama made it worse (his health care reform is a good example of this — something that postures as a radical action in favour of those in need of health care, but something that actually makes very minimal changes and also furthers the interests of American capitalism — as is his ending of the “combat mission” in Iraq).
It is appropriate for the American public to be thinking about things like subversion, resistance, and revolt (although, I should stress this: I do not think that it is ever appropriate for somebody to do what Loughner did). However, it is precisely here that the violence desired (and enacted) by the Tea Party has an insidious impact upon movements of resistance. Populist (American) violence is violence that and supports an oppressive status quo, and also ends up strengthening other pro-capitalist agendas — it causes an increase in security measures and surveillance, it brings more oppressive laws into being in order to target those who pursue change (thereby altering the legal system so that social justice advocates and community organizers become defined as “terrorists”), and it causes the general public to be increasingly suspicious, fearful, and violent against any who might pursue liberating change outside of the prescribed legal, institutional or governmental avenues.
For a parallel example, think of Jim Jones and the ways in which he poisoned the perspectives of any who (even today) think about living in alternate, more intentional, forms of community that seek to explore better ways of sharing life together. When I first began to approach people about living in a more intentional kind of community, the same comments (half-serious, half-joking) were always made: “When do we drink the cool-aid?” or “I’m not going to let you sleep with my spouse.” Thus, those who want to do something that might look a bit like what Jones did — because, you know, he did create a community where people of all races where equal and were the rich shared with the poor so that everybody had enough — are also going to be looked at like they might be sociopathic killers and sex offenders.
Therefore, one of the results of Loughner’s actions will be that the public is increasingly unwilling to consider or engage in anything that looks like less-legal tactics of resistance and the Powers will be increasingly able to criminalize dissent. This, just like the deaths that occurred on January 8th, is a tragedy because life-giving change will not come through the means that are legally available to us.