By Janell Hobson
By now, we have heard various theories about why 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner may have shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head and killed six others who showed up at a Safeway grocery store in Tucson last Saturday to meet their local U.S. representative.
The victims of this shooting represent different age groups and include both women and men, but there is little doubt that Giffords was the primary target of Loughner’s rage. Which begs the question: Is the Tucson tragedy the latest example of gender-based violence?
Sure, it’s easy to blame yet another mass shooting in our country on the violent political rhetoric that has poisoned the airwaves. But we could also point to other details emerging about the gunman: such as the “Die Bitch” note found in his home, a possible reference to Giffords, and his online postings about rape and his rejection by women, which suggest a link to misogyny.
In light of the discovered nonsensical ramblings of the gunman on YouTube and MySpace, it’s even more convenient to isolate this incident as one of “mental illness.” As if our mentally ill citizens exist in a vacuum–or, worse, don’t have any agency.
As an old West Indian saying goes: “Tom may be drunk, but Tom’s not stupid.”
Translation: There is a method to his madness.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to reinforce an ableist conversation in which the labeling of violent persons as “mentally ill” perpetuates the criminalization of those who are in desperate need of health care. After all, according to a Time report, more Americans receive mental health services in prisons than they do in medical facilities. That’s quite ironic given that our recent violent political climate arose over healthcare reform; the gunman, if we agree that he suffers from mental illness, might have benefited from such reforms.
Nor should we overlook how our readiness to label Loughner as mentally ill may be tied to his white privilege. We did not have these conversations about the Muslim shooter in Fort Hood or the Virginia Tech killer, both of whom received much media attention over their ethnic identities as non-whites. When a white man goes postal, why is it that we don’t blame his ethnicity or his religion or his “cultural background”?
And what if we did interrogate the cultural forces that shaped Loughner’s violent actions in the ways that we are so quick to interrogate the cultural forces that shape non-white killers? Indeed, what if those cultural forces point to a culture based on violence against women – a culture that is transnational and global in scope?
I, for one, have not dismissed the evidence that the FBI has found which highlights Loughner’s premeditated plans to target Giffords for assassination. His reason for focusing on Giffords may seem illogical to some because there is no “political” rationale, but there is nothing out of the ordinary about a man who feels powerless to reassert his power the best way he knows how: by whipping out his gun (and the other pointed metaphors it implies) and unleashing it on a woman. After all, what are his anti-government rantings on mind control but a manifestation of the loss of power and control? Yes, some of Loughner’s victims were male, but let us not forget his primary target was one of the few female members in the U.S. Congress – a public figure who had already received violent threats, including an attack on her office when she supported healthcare reform, and who represented a government (and a gender) the gunman had learned to distrust.
Crazy or sane, politically motivated or not, when will we have deeper conversations about the gender violence affecting our interactions with each other? Will we continue to ignore the fact that the vast majority of those who go “postal” by enacting mass shootings have been men? How often do such men first target their wives, girlfriends or mothers (and now an elected official) before they unleash their violence on everyone else?
As a woman of color, I’ve never been good at separating sexism from other “isms” and issues, so if there are connections to be made I will look for them. And I’ll also be among the first to point out inequitable coverage based on race–such as the lack of attention to violence by Arizona’s Border Patrol just days before the Tucson shooting. Nonetheless, I urge us not to be dismissive about the gender violence reflected in the Tucson tragedy. Mental issues and political rhetoric aside, what has always been far more pervasive in our culture is the general disrespect and violent dismissal of women. Rising to public office does not abate the misogyny; indeed, it seems to exacerbate it. I have recent memory of the vicious, woman-hating signs, jokes and T-shirts leveled against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and First Lady-in-waiting Michelle Obama. The misogyny was blatant, while the racism against President Obama was sublimated (barely).
I dare say that Giffords and others are bearing the brunt of a certain segment of our society who feel their loss of power, control and privilege because of who resides in The White House. This is how misogyny intersects with racism and xenophobia: Women’s bodies routinely become the targets for those who want to reassert their power and control.
As we say our prayers for Giffords’ recovery, let us remember all the victims of this tragedy, including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who already at her young age was politically inspired to make the world a better place. Stirred by the “campaign of hope” in 2008, when so many of us still believed that our country could rise up to the promise of social justice and liberation for all, she dared to imagine that she, too, could be a political leader. We owe it to her to keep calling out all the “isms” that make such dreams so hard to attain.
Special thanks to Erin O’Brien, who called my attention to the racial and mental health conversations we are not yet having.
Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s Studies at the University at Albany and author of Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. She is presently working on a second book, which explores race, gender, and digital culture.