US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is in a critical condition and six others are dead - including a nine-year-old girl - after a shooting spree in Arizona. Local police have detained 22-year-old Jared Loughner as a suspect in the crime.
The incident, of course, is a devestating tragedy. It has taken the lives of six people, and one family will have to go through the unimaginable grief of burying a young child. Candlelight vigils have been held for the congresswoman's recovery, and political figures across the spectrum have spoken out to express their sorrow and condemn the shootings. Barack Obama called it a "tragedy for our entire country."
But the event has also sparked a political storm, for the fact that Giffords was one of those politicians "targetted" by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party for voting in favour of Obama's health care bill.
The implications of "targetting" and the gun-sight imagery are so obvious that they shouldn't need stating. It also shouldn't need stating (but, unfortunately, probably does) that this in no way means that Palin or her campaign deliberately encouraged assasination. They didn't.
Rather, as the US left has been quick to point out, they have wrought "a climate of hatred that allows such attacks." I have previously commented upon the reactionary nature of the Tea Party movement Palin is affiliated to, and how it has attracted conspiracy nuts alongside libertarians, conservatives, and other assorted rightinsts. It would not take much for somebody who had gone off the deep-end to take the militant imagery of this campaign and conclude that assasination was neccesary.
And, from the half-baked ramblings on Loughner's YouTube channel, and what we know of his political beliefs and affiliations, that certainly looks to be the case.
The Independent quotes those who knew him as saying he "disrupted class frequently with nonsensical outbursts" and was one of those "guys who are just angry." BBC News adds that he described US laws as "treasonous," and that "the government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar." On one of his YouTube videos, he declared: "No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver! No! I won't trust in God!" The Army also "confirmed that Mr Loughner attempted to enlist but said he was rejected, without specifying the reason."
His politics are confused, but they lean visibly towards constitutionalism, support for the military, belief in a gold standard, and an angry rejection of government from a right-libertarian/conservative standpoint. All of which speaks of exactly the kind of person that would be attracted to Palin's movement.
At present, Loughner is a suspect and his guilt is unconfirmed - though a final message on his MySpace page (now down) saying "goodbye" and "dear friends, please don't be mad at me" certainly hints in that direction. Whatever the case, he stands as an example of the character of people on the far fringes of the American ultra-right. Palin can not be blamed for fostering such people, as they certainly existed long before she rose to prominence. However, she can be credited with helping drag the mainstream spectrum rightward enough to accomodate them.
That is the real worry here. The shooting in Arizona was indeed a horrendous tragedy, and I offer my condolences to the families of the victims along with a hope that Giffords recovers. But, beyond it, we have to ask whether this was just the tip of the iceberg.