Political Violence, Mental Illness, and Demonizing Narratives
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 11, 2011 at 11:30:42 AM EST
Let’s be really, really clear about what I have been writing about the alleged shooter in the Arizona terror attack that appears to be a conscious attempt to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. I have been explaining those patches of coherent text by Mr. Loughner that reflect longstanding claims found in right-wing conspiracy texts. It is speculation about a possible world view. It is speculation, but it is rooted in substantial research into the dynamics at work.

Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, and a phalanx of right-wing demagogues have been viciously demonizing Democrats, liberals, leftists, and immigrants with false and histrionic claims for many years. They are not legally culpable for the series of violent attacks over the past two years, but they must share some moral responsibility. Some of us have started calling it the “becking” of America.

To clarify my views, I know that:
  • Most people who have a mental illness do not act out in violence.
  • Most people who believe in conspiracy theories do not act out in violence.
  • Most people who live in right-wing information silos do not act out in violence.

I am not saying that any of these things are predictive of eventual violence by an individual.

What I am saying is that when someone acts out in violence there is at least some reason they pick their target. This is even true when the perpetrator suffers from a mental illness. Only in very rare cases is the violence an act of such delusion that it is not possible for a psychiatrist to come to understand the narrative in the person's mindset that justified (to the mentally ill perpetrator) the act of violence. These perpetrators can come from the political right, left, or center. In recent years there has been a pattern of violence carried out by persons with identifiable right-wing views.

Right-wing pundits are fond of dismissing these people as really leftists (the Nazis were national socialists…get it…lefties); having no discernible political POV; or just plain crazy. I disagree.

We do need to see the differences and connections among:

  • Individual clinical mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia, etc.).
  • Lone Wolves who carry out acts of violence.
  • Small groups that turn to violence based on political ideology, bigotry, or conspiracy thinking (or a combination of these factors).
  • Periods of mass-based social anxiety, paranoia, and demonization such as the Salem Witch Hunts and the McCarthy Period.

We also need to see how these phenomena can be linked in the social sphere. Here is what I wrote in June 2009:

"Aggressive right-wing rhetoric targeting Democrats as treasonous encourages some unstable people to act out in aggression or violence."
(Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating).
I base my conclusions on my experiences investigating these matters for decades. In late 1994 I began corresponding via primitive e-mail with a group of researchers concerned with the growth of violent rhetoric inside the Patriot/Militia movements. Articles about this at the time were penned by Jonathan Mozzochi, Dan Junas; and Matt Lyons and me. Jeff Cohen and Normon Solomon wrote about the connection between the militias and right-wing talk radio. This was during a period when President Bill Clinton was being vilified and demonized by a network of right-wing demagogues. We feared an outbreak of violence. In November 1994 I met with researchers at Planned Parenthood in New York to devise a plan to protect clinics from potential violent attacks we felt would flow out of the rampant conspiracy theories from the Political Right about the government and liberal elites (especially “abortionists”).

In December 1994 John Salvi killed two women and wounded five other people in attacks on two Brookline reproductive health centers that provided abortions. In the spring of 1994, Salvi had joined with 300 anti–abortion demonstrators outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts where pamphlets were circulated that cited Operation Rescue as claiming that 18,000 abortions were performed annually at the facility. Salvi trained with an armed militia unit in Florida and read extensively from Catholic far-right conspiracy publications. One was an essay justifying the political assassination of abortion providers. As Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee explained at the time, there was an overlap between the militias and the Religious Right.

In 1995 I sat down with both the defense and prosecution in the John Salvi case and walked them through what conspiracy claims made by Salvi were in fact claims found in right-wing anti-abortion publications. I believe Salvi was mentally ill. Mentally and emotionally unstable people, however, can pick up cues as to who to blame for their anxieties, fears, and clinical paranoia from external groups. They often act out on those beliefs. On a societal level they are pointed at targets by demagogues.

The bombers of the Oklahoma City Federal building were not mentally ill, but their act, like Salvi’s, was predictable. In early 1995 a meeting was held in the Pacific Northwest with some two dozen researchers of right-wing and racist movements attending. The consensus of all of us was that more violence was imminent. Ken Stern volunteered to write up an extensive report justifying our fears, which was sent to the federal government. It was ignored.

The Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 15, 1995. The same dynamics are in play today.

I was subpoenaed by the defense in the trial of Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing case. My task there was to read everything ever written or read by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols entered into the court record and determine the political POV of the two men. After three days of reading and watching videos that Timothy McVeigh was part of the neonazi movement and Terry Nichols was part of the patriot/militia movement.

When the defense submitted my affidavit, the prosecution dropped their witness who was going to say that McVeigh and Nichols shared the same political POV. In fact, based on my study of the case, it was clear to me that Nichols thought the Oklahoma City federal building was going to be bombed at night when it was empty, and that it was McVeigh who intended (probably all along) to bomb it in the daytime to kill the maximum number of people. Nichols indicated his willingness to identify the other members of the bomb plot, but the state of Oklahoma and the federal government refused to cooperate on granting Nichols immunity from further prosecution, so he sits silent in jail.

Neither McVeigh nor Nichols showed any signs of mental illness, they had political motives and they saw themselves as political soldiers in a guerilla war against an illegitimate government. McVeigh handed out the neonazi book The Turner Diaries glorifying violence against the government, and he read this and other materials that identified the evil government conspiracy as being led by Jews, Communists, leftists, and homosexuals.

Those people who have mental illness who turn to violence (a very tiny percentage of the whole group) generally interpret conspiracy or threat-to-the-nation narratives in a way that amplifies the threat and demonizes the target to the point of dehumanization. In these cases, the target has often been demonized as a threat to the survival of the community, race, nation, etc. in a way that suggest (as I quoted from Hanna Arendt in one of my posts) that the "follower" of the demagogue hears a call to eliminate the problem through violence.

SOME people with mental illness lack the restraints that keep otherwise "sane" people from acting on those veiled calls for violence. They tend to act first in a sociological dynamic of demonization.

Sara Robinson has noted that a substantial number of the people who have committed acts of political violence since the election of Barack Obama as President have indicated their fear of government and their idea that the nation is on the brink of political, economic, or moral collapse. And they seem to be emotionally or mentally unstable. They lack the standard mechanisms of restraint.

At some point in a society the calls to purify the nation and eliminate the threat are picked up by political soldiers—the armed guerillas. Even when they act alone (lone wolves / leaderless resistance), they have direction from a demagogue. Sometimes the guerillas act in underground armed cells, such as the neonazi Aryan Republican Army or the Brüder Schweigen (Silent Brotherhood). In both cases their targets can be identified through a process called "Stochastic Terrorism," explained in detail by blogger G2Geek on Daily Kos.

If this dynamic of demonization proceeds, the justification for violence get picked up by a mass movement, and that paves the road to violence and even genocide on a mass scale. Thus the Nazi genocide, Stalin's purges and killings, the Cambodia genocide, the Armenian genocide, the genocides in Africa, etc. This process is variously called exemplary dualism, palingenesis, apocalyptic aggression, the sacralization of politics, or political religion. All are building blocks of political violence and ultimately totalitarianism and mass murder.

I was selected to write about this process in the United States and its relationship to totalitarianism and fascism for the academic testimonial book in honor of the great scholar of fascism, Stanley Payne. (Chip Berlet, 2008. “The United States: Messianism, Apocalypticism, and Political Religion.” In Roger Griffin, Matthew Feldman, and John Tortice, eds., The Sacred in Twentieth Century Politics: Essays in Honour of Professor Stanley G. Payne, pp. 221-257. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.). Here is the publisher's website blurb:

September 11th 2001 brought the entire question of religion's place in modern political ideology into sharp focus. Yet in effect this dysfunctional symbiosis had already been a feature of the international landscape for many decades. Scholars such as Eric Voeglin and Raymond Aron, to name but a few, delineated and assessed the way in which regime types such as Stalin's Soviet Union, Mussolini's fascist Italy and Hitler's Nazi Germany assumed quasi religious forms, substituting an omnipotent divine being with a corporeal and illuminated leader, as early as the 1920s and 1930s. But it is only recently that academic attention has returned with a vengeance to examine the manner in which revolutionary movements frequently adopt a religious form, or even hijack existing mainstream faiths in order to pursue a frequently brutal and violent political agenda based on sweeping social and individual transformation along the lines of official dogma and doctrine.

This is the basis of the public discussion launched by Sara Robinson over the relationship to current societal processes and the potential for a fascist movement in the United States here; here;. and here. Along the way, several of us participated in a rejection of the book Liberal Fascism and other notions that the Nazis--National Socialism--was on the political left when almost every scholar of fascism calls it either a right-wing current or a movement that allies with the far right.

I think this is the point that progressive folks who study right-wing rhetoric such as me, Fred Clarkson, David Neiwert, Sara Robinson, John Amato, Eric Ward, Mark Potok, Adele Stan, Max Blumenthal, Alexander Zaitchik, and others have been trying to explore in our own imperfect ways.

All it would take in the current toxic political climate for violence against demonized targets of right-wing venom to spread into a mass quasi-fascist phenomenon is another major terrorist attack or another significant economic collapse, or some other traumatizing trigger event. I chose to focus my February 2010 article on the Tea Party movement for the Progressive Magazine on immigrant rights activists.

That’s because immigrants already know they are under attack and they fear this assault could turn even more violent than it already is. In my interviews I hear the same fears from Muslims, Blacks and other people of color, reproductive rights and gay rights activists, even ecology activists. Whether or not an actual mass-based fascist movement emerges is a matter of conjecture; but the bodies of the scapegoats are already piling up.

To not see the corrosive and dangerous outcomes of thirty years of venom, demonization, and vilification by right-wing demagogues is to veil ourselves in comforting and opaque cocoons of White privilege and superior social status. It won’t happen to us we think; but it is happening here.

Just heard Russ L. sluff of the criticism as a conspiracy against the conservative movement. Russ, Like Imas and Lenny Bruce, to name a few, acted as if words carry no power.  The New Testament book of James says that words are powerful.  Dr. Bill Pinson used to say they were like a bullet, once launched you could not call it back.

by wilkyjr on Tue Jan 11, 2011 at 02:51:32 PM EST
I remember back when I listened to that $#^ (in the 90's) that he used to rant about words having power and words meaning things.  (It was back when he used to advocate a "Poor Tax" which was meant to make poor people work harder so they wouldn't have to pay it.)

It's funny now that people are starting to catch on to them (I hope), suddenly he's suddenly acting the way he used to claim 'the left' acted.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Jan 11, 2011 at 03:22:48 PM EST

To deny an moral responsibility.
_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Jan 11, 2011 at 07:42:08 PM EST
I read this morning that Palin is blaming journalists.

My guess is that she doesn't want to answer questions about her real goals and activities, and with the things she's said about journalists, if she ever got into the presidency the media is probably going to be heavily censored.  

(I just wish they'd start grilling her about her dominionist connections and goals!)

by ArchaeoBob on Wed Jan 12, 2011 at 11:08:08 AM EST

Based on a little web research I did yesterday and today, it appears that Jared Lee Loughner, Scott Roeder, and James Von Brunn were all influenced not just by "right wing conspiracy theories" in general but by something much more specific -- the "sovereign citizen" movement, a subset of the right wing "Patriot movement."  For details and links, please see my post Jared Lee Loughner and the "sovereign citizen" movement.

I agree that right wing grand-conspiracy narratives are dangerous in general, not just in the hands of the "sovereign citizen" movement.  But the latter seems to be, by far, the most violence-prone branch of the "Patriot movement," because it inherently encourages people to break the law.

by Diane Vera on Tue Jan 11, 2011 at 10:36:20 PM EST

I may have spoken too soon about James Von Brunn -- I have not yet found reliable confirmation of his involvement in the "sovereign citizen" movement.  But I did find what seemed to me to be good confirming info about about Scott Roeder.  Also, the ADL and SPLC sites recount plenty of other violent episodes involving "sovereign citizens."

by Diane Vera on Tue Jan 11, 2011 at 11:45:04 PM EST

Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for starting this up. this website is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality. useful job for bringing something new to the internet!madeira plastica | plastic lumber | Ssangyong | hyundai hb20sRZ0Nj

by dennishobson on Wed May 22, 2013 at 09:58:32 AM EST

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