The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this weekend has come as a terrible shock to the state of Arizona, to the United States and to the wider world. However, as I mentioned on Sky News this morning, perhaps the most dramatic element to this tragic event is the targeting of a young and relatively obscure female member of the lower house of congress. In the past, assassination attempts have focused on high-profile men, usually presidents or at least presidential candidates.
Barack Obama came to prominence claiming that there was no such think as red states or blue states, only the United States. Two years into his presidency, however, the U.S. is a deeply divided nation, and the divisions are only getting deeper and more pronounced. No longer is heartfelt political dialogue possible in some sections of society, as groups unite to wage political war on one another. Much has been made of the use of ‘targets’ on web sites to focus on certain districts for victory. This was not unique, not is the use of harsh rhetoric in politics. What is concerning, however, is the depth of disdain that has emerged. No longer can one merely disagree. Instead, opponents are savaged, tarred and feathered as being anti-American, and accused of dark plots, designed to radically alter the direction of the country and set it on the path to socialism.
In 2010 I was a visiting fellow at the University of North Dakota’s Centre for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. In October I received the keys to Grad Forks, the university’s hometown, having given a speech entitled The Perpetual War on Terrorism, in which I warned against the rise in political violence in the United States. What follows is an excerpt from that address:
For the vast majority of its existence, the United States has benefited from its strategic geo-political position. With abundant natural resources, expansive land mass and weak neighbours to its north and south, the United States was able to thrive in relative and fluctuating isolation from the rest of the world. As the rest of the world suffered at the hands of one extremist group after another, the United States took great pride in having avoided any such attacks and the attending fear that such atrocities can strike into the heart of the populace. Indeed this was a primary boast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, who saw the lack of domestic political violence as a vindication of his methods and of his agency.
Just as the United States remained apparently unscathed, the European continent in particular was inundated with sporadic acts of extreme political violence. From the IRA in the UK, to the Baader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Army Faction in Germany, from the Basque ETA group in Spain to the actions of Carlos the Jackal, few, if any, European nations were spared the horrors of terrorism in the Twentieth Century. Indeed political violence in the form of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria triggered the First World War, an event that formed part of a seven-year cycle in which anarchists assassinated President Carnot of France, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the prime minister of Spain and King Humbert of Italy. As the century progressed so the body count grew: The IRA attempted to assassinate two British Prime Ministers; Margaret Thatcher and John Major and succeeded in killing Lord Mountbatten and MPs Airey Neave and Ian Gow. In Italy, Premier Aldo Moro was kidnapped and shot to death in 1978 and an assassination attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II, as the nation came under the grip of ‘Red Brigade’ factions. Political violence also led to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and foreign minister Anna Lindh. Elsewhere, assassins claimed the lives of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin, Rajiv and Indira Ghandi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.
Anarchism aside, much of this could be explained in terms of religious or political struggles that predated the modern era. Time and again leaders were struck down by groups dedicated to the promotion of an ideology or religion that they felt were threatened by the political status quo. Indeed, what differentiated the events in Europe and the rest of the world from the United States was the manner in which such events were implemented. Political violence on the European continent was uniformly seen as the act of groups, conspiring to overthrow leaders in an attempt to implement a specific philosophy, even if that was mere anarchy, with motivations ranging from the religious to the ideological and covering both extremes of the political spectrum.
Yet the United States could not escape acts of political violence, irrespective of claims made by Director Hoover, for the history of the United States is littered with such acts. Indeed, the aforementioned anarchist movement claimed the life of President William McKinley in the first year of the Twentieth Century. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to commence the first international effort to eliminate terrorism, stating, “anarchy is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band together against the Anarchist. His crimes should be made a crime against the law of nations…declared by treaties among all civilized powers.”[i] TR’s motivations, of course, were a little cloudy, as he had ascended to the presidency as a direct result of the political violence that had claimed the life of President McKinley.
In the United States, however, political violence has almost always been explained as the deranged and misguided acts of lone madmen. From the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King or many other political leaders, such acts are rarely explained as being the result of conspiracies, but rather of disturbed, lonely young men, eager to make their mark on history, even if it is the last thing that they ever do. Little wonder, therefore, that few in Europe accept the official verdicts of such events, when they stand in stark contrast to the European experience. There are exceptions of course; the Klan and the Weather Underground amongst them, but the lone individual is the norm in America, with more recent examples including Ted Kazinski, Eric Rudolph, and John Hinckley.[ii] Also, the political origins of American political violence would appear to be from the extreme right, as opposed to the European experience of terror from the Marxist/Leninist left. American fanatics, it seems are concerned about too much government as opposed to too little!
These differences raise questions pertaining to the variances in the societal and political make-up of the two continents and their governmental structures, variances that require placement in the correct historical and political context. To do so, it is instructive to consider the actions and motivations of a successive number of administrations in order to ascertain the extent to which the United States has been waging a war against political violence and the degree to which this has succeeded to date. In so doing it is possible to ascertain patterns of behaviour and rhetoric and of repeated attempts by the United States to proffer apparently simple solutions to ancient hatreds only to be surprised when such platitudes provoke a backlash that perpetuates a new cycle of violence that has dragged the United States into an apparent nightmare of its own making.
As American mourns its dead and continues its vigil for Congresswoman Giffords, it would do well to consider the lessons that have failed to be learnt from similar events in the past and how such lessons could be applied in the aftermath of this tragedy. To ignore history is to be condemned to relive it. Right now, America is continuing in a national nightmare due to its innate inability to learn the lessons of its own history. President Obama’s responsibility now is to follow President Clinton’s efforts in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, to unite the nation in grief, and in a shared vision of tomorrow.
[i] President Theodore Roosevelt, quoted by David C. Rapaport, ‘The Fours Waves of Modern Terrorism,’ in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (eds) Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004, 52
[ii] Respectfully, The Unabomber, the individual who sought to disrupt the Atlanta Olympics with a pipe bomb, and President Reagan’s would-be assassin.