Saturday, August 16, 2008

Right-wing violence and mental illness

-- by Dave

Cujo359, whose work I respect, has posted a challenge to me for characterizing the assassination of the Arkansas Democratic Party chairman as "starting increasingly to look like yet another case in which an unhinged wingnut decided to 'take out' more liberals." [Yes, this was an FDL post, but since FDL isn't the appropriate place to post a lengthy and detailed response, I'm doing it here.]

Obviously, in a post titled "Looking For Hate In All The Wrong Places," this was not a characterization I made lightly. In fact, I'd had a backstage disagreement with Sara over whether this case qualified as a politically eliminationist act -- at the time, I didn't think the evidence was in. But, after gathering more info, including my own sources, I decided the case was looking increasingly like a political killing.

There was also, in fact, what we knew publicly about Johnson, particularly that he had a large stash of guns, and these were not collector items. Such a collection is typically not indicative of a left-wing bent, but rather a right-wing one. There was also a note found in his home indicating he had selected Gwatney as his victim in advance.

Max Brantley at the Arkansas Times blog has more on Timothy Johnson and the evidence for him having a political motivation. Similarly, David Coon at the same blog fills in more of the gaps, including a local-TV report that interviewed some of Johnson's classmates and people who knew him reasonably well. Says one:

"I would always remember going to class and I would see that he had a Bill Clinton anti-campaign sticker [on his car] that says I don't miss Bill. [No such bumper sticker was on the pickup he crashed in a police chase, however.] "He would surf the internet and he would see that a Democrat had died and he would laugh about it."

An earlier version of this story referred to "weird political conversations" these classmates had had with Johnson, indicating that he held NRA-type views about gun rights (which is fairly typical of people who own 14 guns). It's hard to say what Johnson's motives were for participating in Democratic primaries, as he evidently did, but considering his animus for the Clintons specifically and Democrats generically, it seems likely if he ever was a Democrat to any great extent, it wasn't as a member of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party in Arkansas; far more likely, it was from the "Justice Jim" Johnson wing.

I happen to believe that as more details about Tim Johnson emerge, my earlier assessment will prove to be correct. But I also expect that we will learn a great deal more about Johnson's mental instability -- and the case will be dismissed by ascribing it simply to that cause. Indeed, Cujo says: "There seems to be no reason to believe that Johnson's actions were any more than a result of the unfortunate combination of a depressive personality and firearms." Yet that fails to explain why someone with this combination of traits would target a political figure like Gwatney.

Part of the problem is that we actually have seen this happen time after time after time: A mentally unstable person is inspired by hateful right-wing rhetoric to act out violently -- and yet because of that mental state, the matter is dismissed as idiosyncratic, just another "isolated incident." And over the months and years, these "isolated incidents" mount one after another.

But simply ascribing these acts to mental illness is a cop-out. It fails to account for the gross irresponsibility of the people who employed the rhetoric that inspired the violent action in the first place, and their resulting moral culpability.

The clearest illustration of this is a case that occurred here in Seattle in the mid-1980s, about which I've written previously:

People who study the far right have known many of these people over the years: Gordon Kahl. Robert Matthews. Tim McVeigh.

One of the most memorable of these, for me, was a man named David Lewis Rice.

On Christmas Eve 1985, Charles and Annie Goldmark were at home with their sons Derek, 12, and Colin, 10, preparing for a holiday dinner when the doorbell rang. It was Rice, a 27-year-old unemployed transient, posing as a taxicab driver delivering a package. He brandished a toy gun and forced his way into their home, then set about using chloroform to render all four Goldmarks unconscious. He then proceeded to kill them slowly, using a steam iron and a knife that he used to insert into at least one of the victim's brains. Annie was pronounced dead on the spot, Colin pronounced dead on arrival, while Charles died there a short while later; Derek finally succumbed 37 days later.

But Rice wasn't just a deranged loony -- though he probably fit that description too. He also was a deranged loony who had been set into action by the malicious lies of a group of right-wing haters, whose venom became his inspiration, as the HistoryLink piece explains:
David Rice, a former steel worker from Colorado, joined an extremist group in Washington called the Duck Club. Although the Duck Club was almost defunct, the Seattle chapter still functioned. The group convinced Rice that Charles Goldmark was Jewish and a Communist. (Charles Goldmark's parents, John and Sally Goldmark, had won a highly publicized libel case in 1964 when they were accused of being Communists.)

The Goldmark case is a centerpiece of James Aho's study of the far right, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy (which I've discussed previously). Aho goes into more detail about what drove Rice, as well as the circumstances surrounding his decision to kill:
Conversion (resocialization) ... occurs not through brainwashing of passive victims or through obsessive self-conversion. It takes place through active efforts of the disciple, sometimes indifferent to ideology or theology as such, to solidify and preserve social ties with his mentors.

... Ed Fasel [fictitious name] was head of the local Duck Club chapter. It was from Ed that Rice received the tragic misinformation that Charles and Annie Goldmark were leading Seattle Communists. In the course of discussions concerning local subversives and crooks who were presumably frustrating Rice's efforts to secure a job, Fasel, mistaking Charles for his father John, related to Rice that the Goldmarks had been investigated and that Charles was "regional director of the American Communist Party." Rice took this to mean that Charles was the "highest obtainable target I could reach, the greatest value informationally." After handcuffing the Goldmarks, Rice intended to interrogate them about the next person in the conspiratorial hierarchy, possibly to preempt at the last moment the impending invasion of alien troops [a conspiracy theory to which Rice subscribed].

What occasioned Fasel to dredge up a name associated with an event that had occurred two decades previously in another part of the state? In a Seattle Port Commission election during the summer of 1985, one of the candidates was Jim Wright, a Republican. Wright's campaign manager was none other than Ashley Holden, a defendant in the Goldmark trial. [Holden had been a leading torchbearer in the McCarthyite "Red fever" that swept Washington state in the late 1940s and '50s, and had been one of the people who falsely accused the Goldmarks in print of being part of the Communist Party.] Upon discovering this unusual link, the Seattle media jumped on it, and the name "Goldmark," with its unfortunate connotations, "got out again," to use one informant's phrase.

In my interview with him, Holden convincingly insisted that he knew nothing of the Duck Club nor any of its members. "I deplored the murder," he said. "There is no question," he went on, parroting local wisdom, "Rice was demented."

I have met some of the old leaders of the Duck Club, including "Fasel" -- whose real name was Homer Brand. They reminded me of Richard Butler: they had a moral stench about them like rotting corpses. Of course, they never faced legal liability for their role in the murders. But they had blood on their hands, just as surely as does the "Libertarian National Socialist Green Party" and whoever else gave Jeff Weise his inspiration.

The issue arose again two years ago here when a Muslim man named Haq -- who, it quickly developed, had a history of mental instability -- went on a rampage inside the Jewish Federation building in Seattle. As I wrote at the time:

Seattle has a history of dealing with tragedies like these -- especially in which the Jewish community is targeted by a mentally unstable person who has bought into the dogma of anti-Semitic hatemongers. The most notorious of these was the 1985 murders of the David Goldmark family by David Lewis Rice, who had decided he was going to singlehandedly eliminate the "top communist" and "top Jew" in Washington -- even though Goldmark was neither. (The Goldmark family had long been politically active progressives; Goldmark's brother Peter, incidentally, is currently running for Congress as a Democrat in eastern Washington's 2nd District.)

The Friday shootings also echoed the 2000 rampage of Buford Furrow at a Los Angeles Jewish day-care center. Furrow, you'll recall, was a white supremacist from Washington state who'd been undergoing mental-health treatment in the Seattle area for several years.

The city, in fact, is still reeling from the more recent killing rampage by a young man from Montana named Kyle Huff, who gunned down six ravers in the early-morning hours after a rave because he hated ravers and "this world of sex that they are striving to make," telling his brother in a letter that he wanted to "kill this hippie shit."

The Huff massacre was not a classic hate crime, because these typically involve prejudice against race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, while Huff's hostility was almost purely cultural. But if we see more of this trend, it may be time to rethink that.

What all of these incidents have in common is the mental instability of the actors; and I've explored previously how that affects the way society and the law must deal with the perpetrators. In the case of Buford Furrow, for instance, his mental illness became a mitigating factor in his eventual sentence, as prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty in large part because of it.

Marking off rampages like Furrow's, Huff's, and Haq's as "isolated events" caused by mental illness is a cop-out, however. Because, as the case of David Lewis Rice made all too clear, these mentally unstable types are almost always stirred up and driven to their insane acts by haters of various stripes, the kind whose voices seem each day to be growing louder in our public discourse. These cultural vampires have developed a real knack for inspiring mentally unstable people into horrific acts of violence.

If it turns out that Timothy Johnson was mentally disturbed, that fact hardly exonerates the people who have constantly demonized Democrats as the root of all evil over the past two decades. On the contrary, it only underscores the gross irresponsibility of this rhetoric -- and stands as one of the important reasons why this kind of talk has to stop.

So when Cujo says this:

There is no doubt that liberals and progressives are the target of hateful rhetoric these days. There is no doubt that, at least on occasion, there are unstable people who take that rhetoric too seriously.

The problem is that this has happened more than "on occasion" -- rather, there is a history of this kind of violence, and there's a consistent pattern to it. What's most noteworthy is that the violence expands with the increasing use of eliminationist rhetoric. When people look at the Gwatney shooting and ask "Why?" -- as so many are -- that history and that pattern are a good place to start looking.

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