The full story of the bloody Tucson, Arizona, rampage that killed six and grievously wounded a U.S. congresswoman has yet to be pieced together, but the tragedy reminds us of the risk to democracy from both violent political rhetoric and reckless exaggerations about "victimhood."
Indeed, the wallowing in "victimhood," especially among relatively privileged groups like white American Christian conservatives, can be particularly dangerous because these groups hold substantial political and media power. Thus, they are largely insulated from the consequences when some unstable individual carries out violence in reaction to their angry propaganda.
We saw this in 1995 when right-wing anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building. Though some on the Left linked that terrorist act, which killed 168 people, to the hateful rants of right-wing radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, the mainstream Washington press corps quickly rallied to Limbaugh's defense.
Similarly, within hours of the Tucson shooting, which left Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition with a bullet hole through her brain, former Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was out with a commentary establishing a defensive perimeter around former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who had put Giffords' district in a rifle's crosshairs.
Like others on the Right, Palin also has favored violent rhetoric in discussing the need to strike back at Democrats who supported health-care reform during the last session of Congress, as Giffords had done. "Don't retreat, RELOAD!" Palin urged her followers.
While deeming Palin's language and imagery "highly unfortunate" and "dumb," Kurtz absolved Palin and other right-wingers of any responsibility for the Tucson slayings and termed any linkage a "sickening ritual of guilt by association."
"It's a long stretch from such excessive language and symbols to holding a public official accountable for a murderer who opens fire on a political gathering and kills a half-dozen people, including a 9-year-old girl," Kurtz wrote from his new perch at TheDailyBeast.com.
We can only imagine how different the reaction would have been if a Muslim political activist had made inflammatory comments toward members of Congress and one of those targets had been gunned down. The U.S. government would be devising novel legal theories to lock the Muslim up along with many of his friends.
Yet, while right-wing commentators have often accused African-Americans and other minorities of exploiting their "victimhood," the Right has learned over many decades the political power that comes from framing issues as "hey, we're the victims here." And, often the Right's exaggerated "victimhood" has been accompanied by violence toward the supposed "victimizers."
For instance, in the South of the 1950s and 1960s, white segregationists portrayed themselves as the victims of "outside agitators" and a "liberal Northern press" intent on destroying the South's "traditional way of life," i.e. white supremacy. Thus, many white racists saw the murder of civil rights workers as a legitimate act of self-defense, the protection of "states' rights."
This chip-on-the-shoulder "victimhood" has remained an element of American right-wing politics ever since. Whenever truly discriminated-against groups, such as blacks and women, have demanded their rights, the Right has cast the reforms as attacks on American traditions.
In recent years when gays have sought basic civil rights, their struggle has been spun as an aggressive "gay agenda" assaulting Christian values. That was the ugly climate in 1978 when a conservative San Francisco city official, Dan White, assassinated Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected public official, and his political ally, Mayor George Moscone.
More recently as gays have sought the right to marry, they are accused of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. A "Defense of Marriage Act" is deemed necessary to protect heterosexual couples. You see, even though the gays are the ones actually facing discrimination, they are portrayed as the "victimizers" and heterosexual couples are the "victims."
In many other cases, the Right has found "victimhood" a powerful political motivator. For instance, the Right rallied white male college students around their "persecution" from "political correctness," which often involved a college administration punishing boorish conduct like shouting racial slurs at blacks and yelling sexual insults at women and gays.
Similarly, George W. Bush's supporters cast themselves as the "victims" during Election 2000 when Al Gore pressed for a fair counting of ballots in Florida.