Watching and reading the tortured but determined efforts on the part of some to depoliticize the massacre in Tucson brought vividly back to mind a similar episode from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The parallels are, of course, not exact. They couldn’t possibly be. But there are some strikingly similar features — and lessons — to both.
The Belfast experience and the shootings in Tucson had a number of characteristics in common: a terrible loss of life caused by psychotic individuals, a background of traumatic political change (at least in the minds of the perpetrators) and a setting of fevered rhetoric from right-wing political leaders who were whipping their followers into a frenzy of derangement against their opponents, alleging conspiracies where none existed. And like the killings in Tucson, the ‘motiveless murders’ that took place in Belfast during the awful summer of 1972, brought with them a persistent effort by people in authority to deny or misdescribe the motives, to play down the political inspiration and accentuate instead the individual and the psychopathic aspects of the killers.
As we know well by now, attempts to characterize the attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the murder of six people attending her ‘Congress on the Corner’ meeting at a Tucson strip mall and the wounding of fourteen others as the act of a madman motivated solely or predominantly by his own mental illness have gained considerable traction.
It is not just in Palin-land or the curious universe inhabited by Fox News that this is happening but in the mainstream media, or at least amongst some sections of it. By coincidence or not, in many instances some of the same media folk could be seen quite recently lining up against Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
Putting cynicism aside, it is not hard to see how they could come to such a conclusion. The alleged perpetrator, Jared Loughner is clearly crazy. Enough about his life has emerged, not least an alarming mugshot snapped not long after the killings and a disturbing video he shot at his community college, to support the view that he is quite probably a paranoid schizophrenic, a lone, delusional nut who was likely to kill or cause great harm to someone, some day.
But it wasn’t just ‘someone’ who he attempted to kill. His target was a Democratic politician who had herself been singled out for political destruction by Sarah Palin in her infamous ‘crosshairs’ map of vulnerable Congressmen. And the attempt to kill her came against a background of some two years of furiously violent and ‘eliminationist’ rhetoric, as Paul Krugman put it, from GOP extremists determined to wrest control of Congress from Democrats and ultimately to kick Obama out of the White House.
A madman Loughner almost certainly is, but he inhabits a country and a state where various levels of madness and irrationality define a large chunk of the political Right, where it is acceptable and even laudable for many to use language that suggests the violent removal of political opponents and for serious politicians to give currency to the most laughably absurd conspiracies.
And while Loughner seems not to have obsessed on the major bugbears of the Tea Party, such as the idea that Obama is a Kenya-born, Muslim Marxist or that health care reform is the first stage on a journey to a country filled with death panels and concentration camps housing dissident American patriots, he nonetheless shares enough of the views of the Right on hallmark issues — for example, Glenn Beck’s favorite obsession, restoring the gold standard, a fixation elsewhere on the Right — to qualify him as a member, albeit of its less well-defined fringes. And a recent interview with a former girlfriend suggests he may actually have been closer to classic Tea Party thinking than many believed, a guy who would ‘rant’ about the powers of the federal government with as much fervor as anyone on Fox News.
But back to Belfast in the summer of 1972. The phenomenon of which Tucson is a junior cousin became unavoidably visible in July of that year. Bodies of dead Catholics began showing up, thirty-one of them by the end of the month, dumped at the edges or sometimes in the heart of Protestant or Loyalist parts of the city. Many had been tortured or mutilated — “fingers, toes, genitals (were) cut off, or eyes plucked out”, according to one account — and all died horrible deaths. One victim had been suspended from a beam and tortured for hours; his body had some 150 knife wounds. Another’s body hair was removed with a blow torch.
So here is point one in the catalog of similarities between Tucson, January 2011 and Belfast circa 1972: the madness of the killers. Those in Belfast were undeniably sadists of a particularly evil sort whose slaughter was inspired by xenophobia and whose American equivalent would more likely be found in Mississippi or Alabama than in Arizona. But that the Belfast killers and Jared Loughner were both psychologically imbalanced in a deep and serious way is undeniable.
And like the slaughter in Tucson on January 8th, the killings of July 1972 in Belfast didn’t come out of the blue. Northern Ireland had been in a political ferment for over two years. A campaign for civil rights by Catholics had met violent resistance from the Protestant or Unionist majority which governed the place. Loyalist mobs (a note of explanation: Loyalist was the term used to describe hardline Unionists; they were the Irish version of the Tea Party, if you like) had attempted to burn down whole Catholic areas, Britain sent troops in and before too long the long-dormant IRA had been revived and was bombing and shooting in an effort to destroy the state. Faced with rising, uncontrollable violence and spreading political instability, the British decided to close down the Unionist government, known as Stormont after the building in which the parliament met, and rule the place directly from London.
Now Unionists and Loyalists both saw Stormont as the bulwark against Catholic domination and their protection against being absorbed by the rest of Ireland. They had been Britain’s surrogate in Ireland for centuries. Transplanted in the seventeenth century and given confiscated Catholic land, the Protestants of the North were the instrument through which Britain controlled the whole island. They had occupied a privileged place but this had been whittled away when most of Ireland won independence in 1921. Now they saw their last buttress being taken away from them; an appalling vista stretched before them. They were in great political shock.
Point number two in the list of similarities. The election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, in 2008, preceded by the financial collapse on Wall Street and followed by the great bank bailout and bursting of the property bubble, is the equivalent for many Americans — interestingly of similar social, racial and economic background and outlook to the Unionists of Northern Ireland — of the fall of Stormont. A safe, comfortable and predictable world had suddenly been taken away from them and an uncertain and threatening future lay ahead.
For the Unionists of Northern Ireland that uncertain future could, in their minds, mean only one thing: their absorption into the Irish Republic where they would now be the minority, condemned to live in fear that those who had once had their land taken away from them — and their jobs, houses and political rights — would now be out for revenge.
That this was in fact neither the intention nor the likely outcome of abolishing Stormont did not matter. The British wanted to reform Northern Ireland, to bring Catholics in from the cold and not to drive the place into the arms of the Irish Republic. Not only could the southern state not afford such a burden, it didn’t want it and it was already clear, as subsequent events would bear out, that Catholics would happily stay British as long as they got a fair deal. But at the time and in the atmosphere of the day such rationality fell on deaf Unionist ears.
For the Tea Party constituency, the Obama election and the financial crisis offered an equally alarming set of possibilities. To begin with, Obama’s success foretold the worst nightmare of White America: the coming demographic revolution that would see Blacks and Hispanics outnumber Whites, a fate that almost mirrored exactly the fears of Northern Ireland Protestants in 1972 that ahead of them lay a future in which they would become the exploited, victimized minority.
Meanwhile, the dramatic shrinkage of property values and retirement portfolios along with a background of near hysteria over Islamic terrorism combined to create an atmosphere in which the wildest of conspiracies suddenly seemed plausible and tenable. Obama was a Muslim, an alien and charlatan who could not prove his American citizenship, a Communist with roots in the radical left of the 1970s and a community organizer who would impoverish the middle class to subsidize the feckless poor and needy in the ghettoes.
As with Northern Ireland in 1972, it did not matter that this was utter nonsense. Like their Irish counterparts, the Tea Party constituency was impervious to reason, instead preferring to find a bizarre solace in imagining the worst.
In Northern Ireland there was no shortage of right-wing politicians ready and willing to put all the Unionists’ worst paranoid imaginings into words. The Rev Ian Paisley, the loud street-corner preacher cum extremist politician, was certainly one. But in those days he had lots of competition. Perhaps the most chilling Loyalist leader was a former Unionist government minister called Bill Craig, who in 1972 had set up a quasi-fascist political movement called Vanguard. He would organize massive protest rallies at which his uniformed followers would parade in their thousands, flags flying as Craig reviewed them from a platform, like a Hitler admiring his stormtroopers at Nuremberg.
A week before the British removed Stormont, Craig held a massive rally at a public park in south Belfast. The rally had been called to protest the anticipated British move and Craig did not mince his words: “We are firmly decided to defeat anyone who tries to subvert our constitution”, he told the 60,000 strong crowd. “We must build up the dossier on those men and women in this country who are a menace to this country, because one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy”.
Almost exactly a month later the first Catholic was shot dead (above: a Loyalist murder victim of the 1970s) and each subsequent week saw more and more killings until by July the numbers of bodies being found on the streets of Belfast were multiplying so fast that it became impossible to deny that something very sinister was happening.
Words have consequences and these were the consequences of Craig’s angry words. Now it may be technically correct that Sharon Angle’s ‘Second amendment remedies’, Palin’s ‘Don’t retreat – reload!’ or Jesse Kelly’s invitation to ‘target’ Gabby Giffords’ defeat by firing a M16 automatic rifle with him, don’t quite match the sinister quality of Bill Craig’s threat, but they’re pretty darned close. And if they don’t, there’s no shortage of others in the conservative camp whose rhetoric over the last five or six years certainly does, like this gem from Rush Limbaugh: “I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus — living fossils — so we will never forget what these people stood for.” Or Ann Coulter’s response in 2005 when asked if she’d rather not talk to a liberal: “I think a baseball bat is the most effective response these days.”
Bill Craig and other like him had opened a Pandora’s Box in Belfast. The killing of Catholics that began after his rally was of course very organized and deliberate. It was intended to terrorize the Catholics into turning against the IRA and it was carried out by Loyalist paramilitary groups whose ranks were populated with killers whose psycopathy would, over subsequent years, become every bit as notorious as Jared Loughner’s, men like John White , Davy Payne , Lennie Murphy, Michael Stone (pictured left) and Johnny Adair.
The deliberate and organized nature of the killing was an obvious piece of political wisdom to the Catholics of Belfast but the authorities decided to pretend that it was not happening. The police, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), christened the killings ‘motiveless murders’ and the British government, by now the sole political authority, agreed.
Minimal resources were allocated to tracking down the killers and the police, according to one account, even tried to blame the carnage on a single psycopath, “variously dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ or the ‘Shankill Butcher’, even when killings were taking place simultaneously in different parts of Belfast, some of the victims being bundled into cars by three or four men.”
The decision not to admit the obvious was motivated by a number of factors, primarily an unwillingness to open up another front in the war raging in Northern Ireland. The IRA was Britain’s main enemy and chasing Loyalist killers would be a distraction. As well, the British Army had begun to recognize that the Loyalists could be a useful tool to wield against the IRA, that the ranks of the paramilitaries could be infiltrated and their leaders directed towards desired military goals.
Whatever the real reason the fact remains that next to nothing was done to halt the bloodletting. Unconfronted by the British, the Loyalist killers went on to kill more and more people. Within a couple of years, the paramilitary groups responsible emerged into daylight and the media was able to put names to them; one group was the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), another the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The government could no longer deny that they existed or that they killed on a massive scale. But it was too late. By the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the UDA and the UVF, and their associated splinter groups had between them killed over a thousand people. The per capita equivalent in the U.S. would be 200,000.
The lesson from all of this for Americans in the wake of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords is that if the underlying reality behind Jared Loughner’s killing spree is not fully recognized, and that the significant role, however indirect, played by the hate speech of the Right remains unacknowledged, then the risk of more Tucson’s can only grow.
Oh, and there’s one more point of similarity between the Tucson situation and Northern Ireland of the early 1970s, and that’s gun ownership. In America, according to one poll, three out of ten people own a weapon. In Northern Ireland the figure is one in ten. By sharp contrast only one out of every 121 people in England and Wales owns a firearm.
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SO, WHO’S THE CRAZYHEAD?
Jared Loughner may well be a crazyhead but take a look at these samplings from a libertarian website, Atlas Shrugs posted in the days following the Tucson killings. The blog is run by Pamela Geller, co-author of the anti-Obama diatribe, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America and a fanatical opponent of all things Muslim. She was a leading light in the campaign against the so-called ‘ground zero’ mosque in lower Manhattan and, at the height of the hysteria over that issue, Fox News brought her on to the network, giving her a slot as a contributor alongside John Bolton, Juan Williams and Judith Miller. Read these postings and ask yourself if in Geller’s world and Fox News’, Jared Loughner is really not mad at all but actually represents what passes for normality?
TRG said in reply to DanS….
Correct, what many people don’t understand here is that this man is akin to a pit bull. He has an owner and a handler. His handler let him off the leash and used him as a weapon. This happens all the time, so the media can just say “Oh, just another unstable psycho who lived in his mom’s basement and got this wild idea to kill a bunch of people” NO, it doesn’t happen like that. These types are programmed and engineered from a very young age by extremely elite and wealthy people to do their bidding. They do this with hollywood and the music industry as well, except they use celebrities to shape social structure and conformity, whereas they use people like Jared as a weapon. There’s WAY more to this story than most people can even possibly begin to comprehend.
android__ said in reply to Blakrat…
Are you kidding me? You need to be read about mind control. Anytime the government wants to pass a new law they create a scenario in which something tragic happens, and going forward they try to convince Americans to give up their liberties for protection. Now they’re trying to say any type of political rhetoric is responsible for actions like this when truly they’re the ones creating the event. Don’t you see they’re trying to take the First and Second Amendment away by using these scenarios? It’s disgusting. Please, get informed. This is why they’re able to pull the wool over a majority of American citizens.
True Patriot said…
I would like to jump in and say the liberal lying news media is covering up that this nutjob was one of their own. He is a Democrat. He is not an Independent. The Communist thugs in the media have been on overtime 24/7 to coverup this nutjobs background. The real story that is.
He was always a Democrat. Also turns out this loon went to Mountain View High School which embraced teaching curriculum offered up by none other than good old Bill Ayers of Weather Underground.
World Net Daily’s reported – Aaron Klein broke this story yesterday after uncovering this school taught the violence and killing of thugs like Bill Ayers, and guess what else? This curriculum was funded by Obama, during the time Obama was Chairman of Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
So Loughner gobbled up this curriculum, embraced it and did what he was taught. He is one of their own and the radical media is having a stroke to try and stop this news from getting out.
Go to World Net Daily’s site and read the entire article. Obama should be in jail, along with Ayers, and all of these thugs. Loughner is just a casualty of this dangerous propaganda Obama embraces.
j8mnbM I’m not easily impressed. . . but that’s impressing me! 🙂
Note: the photograph you use of “a victim of 1970’s Loyalist violence” is Joseph Donegan, murdered by Lenny Murphy and Tommy Stewart in October 1982.