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Murder, Mass Die Offs, <br /> and the Meaning of Randomness

by Michael Shermer, Jan 12 2011

The following is an op-ed originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Tuesday January 11, 2011 (under a different title and slightly shorter).

The media once again scrambled this past week to find the deep underlying causes of shocking events. We saw it in the rush to explain the tragic murder of six people in a shopping center in Tucson. And we saw it in the rush of stories about mass die offs of birds and fish around the country.

In the case of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a shopping center in Tucson, attention has turned to the motives of the shooter, 22-year old Jared Loughner, whose political ramblings about returning to the gold standard and about excessive control by the government have sent the media searching for answers in the vitriol of right-wing talk radio, the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, and the bellicose divide between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and elsewhere.

The mass die offs of fish and birds has spurred a number of deep causal theories, including suggestions that the apocalypse is near and that secret government experiments were to blame, such as HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska that studies the ionosophere that is run by DARPA, the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which admittedly does sound like something concocted by the writers for the television series X-Files.

We live in a causal universe, so all effects do have causes, but before we turn to grand overarching causal theories such as political rhetoric or government experiments, we must always remember the clustering effect of randomness and how our brains tend to look for and find deeper meaningful patterns even where none exist. Toss a handful of pennies into the air and you will notice that they do not land randomly on the ground. They cluster into apparently nonrandom patterns in which some are closer and others are farther apart. There is nothing inherently hidden in such a clustering effect—no concealed forces under the ground causes the pennies to fall as they do. It’s just chance. But our brains abhor randomness and always seek meaning.

The National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that about 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia, and that more than 25% of us have some kind of diagnosable mental disorder. As well, psychologists estimate that 1–3 percent of the U.S. population suffers from psychopathy, or the inability to feel empathy and an almost complete lack of moral conduct. Using the conservative figure of 1% and a U.S. population of 300 million people, this means that some 3 million people with either psychosis or psychopathy are walking among us, as well as tens of millions more whose mental health is askew in some way. And many of those who need it aren’t receiving treatment. Given these statistics, events such as the shooting in Tucson are bound to happen, no matter how nicely politicians talk to one another on the campaign trail or in Congress, no matter how extreme Tea Party slogans are about killing government programs, and no matter how stiff or loose gun controls laws are in this or that state. By chance—and nothing more—there will always be people such as Jared Loughner who do the unthinkable.

According to Audubon Society biologist Melanie Driscoll, about 5 billion birds die each year in the United States from a variety of causes. Because of the clustering effect of randomness it is inevitable that some of those billions of birds will die in apparent nonrandom clusters. The 5,000 red-winged blackbirds that died in Arkansas, for example, looks like an ominous cluster when scattered about the ground, but there are over 200 million red-winged blackbirds in the U.S., and according to Driscoll they fly in flocks of 100,000 to 2 million. Although 5,000 birds falling dead out of the sky sounds positively apocalyptic, it represents a scant 0.0025% of the total population.

Of course there are specific causes for specific events. We will, in time, learn of the particular personal and social conditions behind Jared Loughner’s heinous act. And biologists are already identifying the causes of each fish and bird die off. The Arkansas blackbirds, for example, died during a New Year’s eve fireworks display, which may have been a contributing factor. Biologist Driscoll notes that “they cannot see well in the dark and we know they were seen crashing into buildings and cars and poles. Necropsies show blunt force trauma to brain and breast.” Others died near power lines that are thin and hard to see at night. The American Bird Conservancy notes that of the 5 billion annual bird deaths, about 1 billion birds are killed each year in collisions with buildings, communication towers, windmills, and other human-made structures. We just never hear about them unless such deaths happen in clusters and are reported in the media, thereby triggering a type of mass hysteria that leads to conspiratorial thinking and what I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

Patternicity is what our brains do. We can’t help it. We see those clusters of events and naturally seek out deep causal meaning in some grand overarching theory. But as often as not events in life turn on chance, randomness, and statistical probabilities that are largely beyond our control. So calls for “an end to all overt and implied appeals to violence in American politics”—such as that just issued by—may make us feel better but they will do nothing to alter the inevitability of such one-off events in the future.

123 Responses to “Murder, Mass Die Offs, <br /> and the Meaning of Randomness”

  1. Paul Lyon says:

    I agree that “implied appeals to violence in American politics” aren’t going to prevent these events, however, it’s pretty sickening to think that these kinds of events are being called for. Calling for such violence is pretty disgusting, and this event just shows us why. Of course, we should have already known that.

    • MadScientist says:

      What’s really disappointing is that people don’t tell these fools that they’re fools – and the idiots rule the roost. Deliberate provocation also seems to draw listeners so career liars are popular on radio and TV. Until people learn to shun and ridicule the professional idiots rather than trying to reason with them or worse still watch them out of some morbid fascination, the idiots will thrive.

      • paul barry says:

        So you’re saying they’re idiots. And fools.

        I’m going to have to pull rank on you.

        I’m with the mattress police.

        I’m taking you downtown

  2. Barry says:

    “…they will do nothing to alter the inevitability of such one-off events in the future.”

    It might make them less frequent.

    It’s a bit like claiming that wearing seatbelts will do nothing to alter the inevitability of fatal car crashes. Technically true, but misleading.

  3. Max says:

    Jared Loughner was a fan of Loose Change and Zeitgeist films, which probably fed his paranoia more than any mainstream media or politicians (who are in on the conspiracy). When a person has schizophrenia, the worst thing to do is to validate and feed his paranoia.

    • Max says:

      In a previous blog entry, Shermer blamed conspiracy theories for Joseph Stack’s and John Patrick Bedell’s attacks.

    • BillG says:

      Perhaps only slightly less worse than schizophrenics justifing their paranoia, it’s the simpletons who justify the constitution that give this country lax and primative attitudes concerning gun control. Hence, convenient for the potential one percent(3-million) mentally impaired to inflict wider damage without much reservation.

      The “god and guns” mind-set literally gives the paranoid more ammunition.

      • MadScientist says:

        The constitution does not state ‘no gun control’ – that is an NRA lie. It’s pretty clear ‘the right to bear arms shall not be infringed’. However, any sensible person would see that the amendment should be subjugated to people’s right to life and safety. Gun control is not about taking people’s guns away, it’s about providing reasonable checks to ensure that guns are kept away from people who are likely a threat to the community. Only an idiot would think it is reasonable to guarantee a right to have firearms to the mentally deranged. Hmm … that gives me an idea … let’s fill the neighborhood of NRA officials with lunatics with guns (as opposed to the garden variety gun nut who may or may not support the NRA, has no mental illness, and who isn’t a personal threat to society).

      • paul barry says:

        nice straw man there

        you know, the NRA lie.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Yeah, I think “… a WELL REGULATED militia…” is a pretty clear statement that the government does have the right to regulate arms. I for one want my M1A1, F-22, and Self-propelled Artillery piece…

      • paul barry says:

        clear as mud chris

        mads… says the NRA lie is “no gun control” stated in the constituion.

        your point is….?

      • Joe (not the conspiracy believer) says:

        I am a member of the NRA, so I read a lot of their political statements. They, in fact, do support not allowing certain people to have guns. They lobbied for the instant background checks that are used today to weed out those who shouldn’t have guns. They also want to make it so the data bases used to do the background checks are properly kept up-to-date. True they also believe that an innocent person isn’t denied the right to ‘keep and bear arms’, but they realize there are people who get guns that shouldn’t, so they also support punishing these people to the full extent of the law. Don’t try to make it the NRA’s fault that some people are psychopaths.

  4. tmac57 says:

    Well,regardless of what ultimately caused Loughner to do what he did,at least some of the overheated rhetoric is being seen in a less acceptable light now.I think even the worst offenders who are disavowing any responsibility will be chastened to some degree.We will see.

    • Max says:

      At least he won’t be a Tea Party hero like Joe Stack, who flew his plane into an IRS building.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Joe Stack was a Left wingnut.

      • WTF? He most CERTAINLY was not.

        Either you’re a minor-league Poe, or you’re a bigger right-wing wingnut than him.

      • Edgaras says:

        it doesn’t help either of you cases. Bush is right wing, Obama left wing. They are both criminals and guilty of thousands of deaths. But you, people, forget that, you see only what media wants you to see.

      • Beelzebud says:

        A left wing nut that hated paying taxes so much he flew a plane into an IRS building? That doesn’t even pass the smell test.

      • Nyar says:

        He also quoted the Communist Manifesto. He saw the government as a kind of reverse Robin Hood, stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. That’s not an unusual position for a left winger.

      • Max says:

        Where did Joseph Stack quote the Communist Manifesto?
        Libertarians say they oppose corporate welfare and bailouts.
        “It should go without saying that the Libertarian Party is philosophically and pragmatically opposed to any sort of bailout to corporations…”

      • Nyar says:

        It was on his blog. I’m not sure if it still available though.

      • Nyar says:

        Here is what Stack actually said if anyone is still interested.

        “The communist creed: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

        The capitalist creed: From each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.”

        The guy may not have been a left winger, but he certainly wasn’t a right winger either.

  5. Max says:

    “Of course there are specific causes for specific events. We will, in time, learn of the particular personal and social conditions behind Jared Loughner’s heinous act. And biologists are already identifying the causes of each fish and bird die off.”

    If the patterns are real and have specific causes, then the problem is not patternicity, but the availability heuristic and knee-jerk finger-pointing instead of figuring out the real cause.

  6. Chris Howard says:

    So, if our beliefs don’t help to shape our behavior then why should we even care about skepticism? I mean, isn’t it the purpose of skepticism, critical thinking, etc., to help us make better, informed choices, to better influence our behavior?
    More to the point, keeping drugs from an addict, gas and matches from an arsonist, or children away from a child molester, isn’t a guarantee that those individuals won’t perpetrate, but to do nothing would be ethically wrong. Just because we don’t have 100% control, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to attain some.

    • Chris Howard says:

      I’m speaking of the shooting, and gun control. I get the mass die off point, and am in agreement. We don’t usually have much control, or if you like, direct influence over nature, but the gun stats. Are pretty clear. They’ve been replicated, ad nauseam, and most come to the same conclusion. It’s not a good idea to have them about. is an excellent resource on the matter. They share FBI, CDC, Interpol, UN, as well as other organizations findings. Gun violence is something that we have a fairly decent level of control over, when implemented, and enforced correctly. The data’s pretty clear on this. As to “hate speech” as an expression of belief, well yeah, you’ve got the right to be a dick, (remember that argument, guys?) and while one had the right, I’d also say that, beyond the immature view of “me and my rights” one should also cultivate a sense of responsibilty, duty, to others. I mean do we really need more hate filled any more self-centered people going on about their money, guns, and the man? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear about self-sacrifice? Giving of oneself, for the greater good? If anything, it seems like we skeptics should be concerned about the validity of any given statement. Currently, the Rights statements are increasingly violent, and false. Is it our duty to expose them, or should we simply gloss over the fact, and move on, to a clustering it to a clustering effect, a mass die off, and then move on?

      • Retired Prof says:

        Chris, you assert, “Gun violence is something that we have a fairly decent level of control over, when implemented, and enforced correctly. The data’s pretty clear on this.”

        Care to document this claim? I’ve never read a study that presented such data, and would be interesting in finding it.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I suggest, gun violence statistics. They’re taken from the FBI, CDC, UN, and Interpol. The U.S. is ranked the highest, out of any G8 nation in gun deaths, we’re third in the world.

      • Joe (not the conspiracy believer) says:

        Check out “More Guns, Less Crime” by John Lott. It is a very intensive study, which shows that restrictive gun laws do not have any effect on gun crime. The book also shows that where concealed carry is allowed crime decreases

  7. Max says:

    Loughner has been described as a pothead. Marijuana use can worsen psychosis in schizophrenics.

    The Pentagon shooter, John Patrick Bedell, also self-medicated with marijuana.

    Bedell was diagnosed as bipolar, or manic depressive, and had been in and out of treatment programs for years. His psychiatrist, J. Michael Nelson, said Bedell tried to self-medicate with marijuana, inadvertently making his symptoms more pronounced.
    “Without the stabilizing medication, the symptoms of his disinhibition, agitation and fearfullness complicated the lack of treatment,” Nelson said.

    • Chris Howard says:

      Maybe one should have to pass a psych. eval. before being able to buy a gun?

      • Retired Prof says:

        Bingo! Especially if you have to pass the same test before buying marijuana.

        By golly, we get just the right combination of tests and prohibitions, we can bring about Utopia.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I doubt the utopia part, but couldn’t hurt. We don’t allow a lot of people do a lot of things because of certain limitations. I can’t drive, because I have a seizure disorder, but I don’t complain like a child about it, because I understand that my right to drive, is a lesser right, to someones right to live. In otherwords I have a greater responsibility above, and beyond, my rights; my desires. So, yeah, if someone has a serious mental illness, then yeah, let’s keep the weapons out of their hands until they get better. It’s kinda’ like keeping a drunk person out of a car, until they sober up. Bottom line, I think it’s about responsibility.

      • Oldskool says:


        Because gunt toting pot heads is who I whant to share Utopia with….

  8. Adam says:

    I don’t think a link between Tucson and right wing extremism has been proven, even tenuously.

    However I do not accept that provocative or violent language is acceptable in politics and wonder why the US tolerates it. Even if free speech you means cannot stop it, that does not make it acceptable in mainstream media or political parties. Why is it that provocateurs get column inches, syndication, national shows?

    If a British conservative MP used cross hairs over his opponents he would be lucky if he weren’t thrown out of the party and lambasted by every newspaper. If a radio or TV personality did the same, even in an opinion piece they’d be lucky if they had a job at the end of the day. In the US it seems to be A-OK.

    • MadScientist says:

      Hillbilly worship seems to have grown. I’m old enough to remember an age where we drummed the fools out of town, but now they’re put up on a pedestal and worshipped.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Ratings. Commercial media’s focus is profit, and the Father Caughlin types have always generated great ratings, and advertising revenue.

      • Retired Prof says:

        Hold on there a minute. Born and raised in the Ozarks myself, I resent the term “Hillbilly.” You’re supposed to call me an “altitude enhanced person.”

        Okay, that comment was facetious. However, I do note that the people who express the kind of contempt for us “Hillbillies” that you do are usually the very same ones preaching the virtues of cultural diversity.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I have relatives in Easter Kentucky, we’re hillbillies. ;-)

      • Heywood says:

        “Easter” Kentucky? Is that opposite of “Wester” Kentucky? Or is it next door to “Thanksgiving” Kentucky? ;)

    • CountryGirl says:

      One important point is that those “cross hairs” were actually surveyor mark/point symbols. Now if the murder had been committed with a Surveyors transit you might have a point. But since they were not it would seem you have none.

      • They most certainly were NOT. Now I know you’re not a Poe but a right-wing wingnut.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Go here
        To see the surveyor map symbol, crosshairs and Palin’s map

      • John Greg says:

        That is a weak and disingenuous argument. Palin’s intent was clearly to indicate or imply the crosshair sites of a rifle. And intent is what is important. Her intent was most definitely not to imply surveyor map symbols.

      • tmac57 says:

        On Palin’s Facebook page where she posted the map she wrote:

        We’ll AIM for these races and many others. This is just the first SALVO in a fight to elect people across the nation who will bring common sense to Washington.

        (capitalization mine) Doesn’t sound like surveyor talk to me.Oh,and about the same time she ‘tweeted’

        “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!'”

      • Ahh, you’re a FreePer … that explains everything, including how much of a wingnut you are.

        CountryGirl … why weren’t those called “surveyors’ marks” before the election?

        Why? Because you’re full of shit.

      • CountryGirl says:

        FreePer? never saw the site before. But nothing seems to stop you from jumping to conclusions.

      • Beelzebud says:

        That is such a lame lie, it’s amazing anyone would seriously try to use it. Surveyor marks? Is that why Palin herself called them bullseyes? By the way, using a site like freerepublic as proof of anything strains credibility to the breaking point.

      • CountryGirl says:

        I think you just moved the goalpost bud! Are you claiming that this site which you seem to fear has changed something in those two pictures? Or are you simply saying you refuse to even accept the truth unless it comes from a source of your choosing?

      • Beelzebud says:

        I trust my source. It was Sarah Palin who referred to them as “bullseyes” in a FB post that used gun metaphors in talking about the map…

      • Max says:

        Palin doesn’t know the difference between crosshairs and bullseyes? A bullseye is concentric circles, like what the Democrats used.

  9. tmac57 says:

    Despite the widespread call for a more temperate climate of political speech,there are a handful of..ummm..commentators, who seem to have taken the stance of “You can have my demagoguery,when you can pry it from my cold dead heart!”.

  10. Jim R says:

    “So calls for “an end to all overt and implied appeals to violence in American politics”—such as that just issued by—may make us feel better but they will do nothing to alter the inevitability of such one-off events in the future.”

    Yes, one-off events will always be with us, but I think it’s a valid hypothesis that the societal tone and availability of weapons will influence the frequency and degree of such acts. Even if taken just as a precautionary principle, it would be nice to see more civil debates rather than giving the most air time to the loudest fringe.

  11. Steve L says:

    Hey, Mr. Shermer,

    So let me get this straight… if we are to believe in you, and in this
    religion of statistic charts, (which you read for answers exactly like
    astrologers read the stars, if you ask me – but that’s just looking for
    deeper meaning where it doesn’t exist!), then isn’t there a very good
    possibility that YOU are one of the 3 million (and that’s a conservative
    figure, don’t forget) that are suffering from schizophrenia or other
    mental illnesses?

    Isn’t it possible, and even probable by your notions, that 1% of all the
    self-proclaimed “experts” in your field is a psychopath? Or am I just
    looking for a deeper meaning?

    Because there are a lot of those experts around. Maybe even more than
    the conspiracy theorists! One percent would be a huge figure! So even if
    it wasn’t psychopathy, or schizophrenia, it could still be that you are
    afflicted by one of the other of the dozens of mental diseases people
    are so often diagnosed with these days (such as megalomania) and so we
    can’t be so quick to jump to the conclusion that you are sane just
    because you’re a skeptic.. or because you have credentials (if you did),
    or any logical reason for that matter, because chance says you could
    very well be a raving lunatic and listening to anything you present with
    more than a grain of salt would be extremely naive.

    Thanks for helping me keep my mind locked into your skeptical,
    scientific box of statistics and charts and graphs that by your own
    logic do not prove a thing, simply because every thought outside of the
    box is immediately considered suspect and therefore easily written off
    as being just the flaw and fantasy of man and all his mental illnesses
    (how convenient), diseases which I might add were all coined by doctors,
    who statistics show may also have been certifiably insane.

    I think I’m gonna write a book now, and call it, “Why Skeptics Say
    Stupid Things”.

    • The “religion of statistics”? And what irrational world did YOU come from?

      No, scratch that. I actually think I don’t want to know.

      Please, just go back there.

  12. MadScientist says:

    However, in the case of the murderer in Tucson, there is a genuine link. The propaganda espoused by the teabaggers, imbeciles like Rush and so on, encourage the delusions of a mentally ill person. We see the same thing happen with delusional people in positions of authority in a religious sect – the Crusades, the Inquisitions, Osama Bin Laden. Religion gives those people widely believed but wrong views of the world which reinforce the individual’s own delusions. When I see the nonsense that Palin, teabaggers, and other idiots write, I think “these people are nuts”. It’s quite discomforting to know that many people are fool enough to believe them. Now if so many people believe these lies, all this harmful propaganda, what hope has a person with certain mental illnesses have of being able to discern right from wrong? They are all culpable and only a fool would believe that they are not. Without that reinforcement perhaps the murderer would have looked for other targets and killed anyway, but you can’t claim that the teabaggers are innocent – they’re vile liars and idiots.

    • Nyar says:

      You sound mentally ill yourself, maybe you shouldn’t be reading on the internet. Take a break, go outside, maybe take a walk in the park to calm down.

    • You know what might change the discourse? Let’s take the guy who shot up San Francisco last year, Bryon Williams.

      “I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn’t for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind.” – Byron Williams

      He elsewhere reportedly CLAIMS Beck didn’t affect him, but, it’s very arguable the other way, especially in a civil suit which has a lower burden of proof and jury unanimity is not needed.

      So, let’s have somebody injured in that incident SUE!

    • Chris Howard says:

      I’m not sure I get your point, here? What are you trying to say?

  13. Gordo says:

    It is true that given a statistical distribution, there will always be some amount of the distribution that exceeds a given threshold (a person being so far out that they go on a killing spree). Our actions, however, effect the quality of that distribution, and even if we can’t prevent all such actions, reducing the number of them is a wonderful goal.

    The fact that people will always die in car accidents does not absolve people who drive recklessly. Michael Shermer should be ashamed of himself for falling into that argument.

  14. Trimegistus says:

    Can someone explain how a left-wing schizophrenic who didn’t listen to talk radio could somehow be driven to murder by talk radio?

    Seems to me the SKEPTICAL position would be to ask if any of these purported “explanations” are at all factual or logical. But of course that means giving up the fun of blaming Sarah Palin for this crime.

    • CountryGirl says:

      I believe the answer can be found in the communist manifesto.

      “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
      “Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.”
      “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.”
      “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

      • tmac57 says:

        Sounds like it could have come right from the GOP/FOX playbook.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I find it funny that Libertarianism, and Communism share a lot of the same ideas, save one. Limited or no centralized government, check. The people control their lives, via democratic voting, check. People have inherent rights, above gov., interference, and other “powers that be,” check. The only major difference between Libertarianism, and Marxist Communism, is disagreement over the economic system. One places it in the control of a few, the other, in the hands of the people, via citizen ownership of the means of production. I remember reading Das Kapitol, and thinking, ” most people have no clue what they’re talking about, when it comes to Communism.” but then I grew up during the Cold War, so…

      • CountryGirl says:

        Are you talking about the theory of communism as discussed by two Marxist professors or the reality of communism as lived by Russian citizens? If you mean the latter you are off target (opps! can I say that?) by a wide mark.

    • Oldskool says:

      Assuming for a moment in this particular case it is purely coincidence that the target was a person that Sarah Palin targetted in her posters and speach. The issue with Palin and the Teabaggers mantra of Kill the Liberals (2nd ammendment solution etc- check the many multiple examples quoted over the internetz), is they do not have the right to feign surprise or indignation when some unhinged follower decides to take them up on the issue.

      Ralph Nader demonised the Corvair in unsafe at any speed, but it wasn’t the worst car, and its faults (handling wise) were quickly rectified, But it became the poster car for making cars safer- my point is that this may not be quite the causal event that people are claiming, but the example should be heeded.

      • Chris Howard says:

        If a left-wing killer’s ideas motivated him to do so, then yeah, I believe that the people with a hate filled leftist ideology, would shoulder some of the blame. Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The influence behavior, and if those ideas help to motivate others to violence then they’re bad ideas, and they should be abandoned.

    • Beelzebud says:

      What evidence do you have that this guy was left wing? Was it the semi-automatic handgun? Was it Mein Kamph and Ayn Rand’s first book on his youtube page? Was it the fact that he tried to assassinate a Democrat?

      Put up or shut up…

      • Chris Howard says:

        I didn’t say he was left wing, I was trying to point out that if he was a leftist, then it would be equally reprehensible. The rhetoric is unethical regardless of political alignment.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Why?! 307 million people did NOT kill someone because of crazy left wing rhetoric so WHY should anyone take blame for what ONE bonafide crazy person did???

    • “Left-wing”? And where did this nonsense come from? And, proof on the “didn’t listen to talk radio”?

      Besides, there’s winger websites and such, anyway. Even if true on not listening to talk radio, that means nothing. Red herring.

  15. Oldskool says:

    By the way, the type of vehemence and vitriol that Right Wing Politicians and Pundits use in the U.S would be deemed completely unacceptable in most parts of the world, and the broader question is, why is it not in the U.S?

    • Chris Howard says:

      Apathy? Love of violence? A selfish desire for rights, without a sense of civic duty, or obligation? Too busy to care? I wish I knew.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Egyptians and Greeks. The Egyptians critique of the Greeks, was that they acted like children, when they didn’t get what they wanted. Americans love democracy, as long as it’s “our party” that’s in control. Maybe we just haven’t learned to be gracious losers? There does seem to be a group of people in the U.S., that are such poor losers that their willing to use an ammo box, if they don’t get their way at the ballot box.

    • rsm says:

      Not acceptable in most of the world?

      Anyone check out the middle-east rhetoric recently? Anyone take a gander at international posturing?

      It may not be accepted in Western Europe, Australia and NZ but that’s a set of rather small anomalies when push comes to shove.

      Oh, and before someone raises China and Singapore as some kind of bastions of virtue I suggest figuring out where ‘free’ can be found in either country in relation to speech.

      • Oldskool says:

        I see, so you are happy and satisfied that your nations political discourse is in the same league as the most war torn and fractious parts of the world

        Way to aspire dude!

      • Chris Howard says:

        Indeed. There seems to be this weird, childish, attitude of “well, they’re doing it, too…” Isn’t the point to be above that sort of thing?

  16. Chris Howard says:

    Forgive me for posting all of this, but I think it’s worth it:
    “On Debating Our Debate.

    As we debate what kind of rhetoric is and isn’t objectionable, it would help if we could make some specific distinctions and keep some important things in mind. To that end:

    Every gun metaphor is not created equal. Military metaphors infuse our talk about politics; the only thing that comes close is sports. The word “campaign” only relatively recently began to be used to refer to politics; its original use referred to military endeavors. But there is a difference between using metaphors that invoke violence (“We’re going to fight this battle to the end!”) and using rhetoric that invokes violence specifically directed at your opponents (like this), or even speaks literally of people arming to take on your opponents or the government (like Sharron Angle’s infamous discussion of “Second Amendment remedies” to not getting the result you want at the ballot box). One is perfectly ordinary; the other ought to be condemned.

    The fact that someone criticizes your rhetoric doesn’t mean they’re “blaming” you for the Arizona shooting. Right now, Sarah Palin’s defenders are angrily denouncing people for “blaming” her for the shooting, because people have pointed to her now famous crosshair map of candidates she was targeting for defeat in 2010, including Gabrielle Giffords. But no one is saying this guy committed his massacre because he looked at this map. What people are saying is that this kind of thing goes too far. Certain things contribute to an atmosphere in which violence becomes more likely; criticizing those things doesn’t mean you’ve said that in the absence of one particular statement or Web posting this event wouldn’t have occurred.

    If you think your rhetoric is above reproach, you have an obligation to defend it on its merits. Naturally, many on the right are going to attempt to turn the criticism of them around on the left: See how they’re playing politics! But if you think it’s perfectly fine for you to say what you’ve been saying, explain why. Attacking the motives of those criticizing you doesn’t qualify.

    Asking you to tone it down is not censorship. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer defends inflammatory political speech by saying, in part, that “any call to cool ‘inflammatory’ speech is a call to police all speech.” As someone who has spent many years tangling with conservatives over their rhetoric, I’ve heard this argument a million times. When you criticize some talk-show host for something he said, he inevitably responds, “You can’t censor me!” The First Amendment guarantees your freedom to say whatever idiotic thing you want, but it doesn’t keep me from calling you out for it. No one is talking about throwing anyone in jail for extreme rhetoric, but we are talking about whether people should be condemned for certain kinds of rhetoric.

    The rhetoric of violence is not the only kind of rhetoric that encourages violence. The apocalyptic rhetoric we’ve seen from some on the right, most notably Glenn Beck, should be part of this discussion too. When Beck portrays Barack Obama as the head of a socialist/communist/Nazi conspiracy whose goal is the literal destruction of America, he is implicitly encouraging violence. If that really were the nature of the administration, and our liberty really were on the verge of being snuffed out, violence would be justified.

    If you’re going to say “Liberals do it too” then you ought to provide some evidence. No one disputes that there has been a tide of extreme and violent rhetoric from some quarters of the right in the last couple of years. But any journalist who characterizes this as a bipartisan problem ought to be able to show examples, from people equal in prominence to those on the right (i.e. members of Congress, incredibly popular radio hosts, etc.) who have said equally violent and incendiary things. “Harry Reid once called George W. Bush a liar” doesn’t qualify, nor does a nasty comment some anonymous person once left on a blog.

    I think the Glenn Beck paragraph is particularly important. Today on his show he veered from comparing himself to MLK and Gandhi to warning viewers to be vigilant, “there are enemies inside the gate.” And by enemies, he means liberals. The man can’t help himself! He has Incitement Tourrette’s.”

    • tmac57 says:

      The funny thing is,those who are characterizing criticisms of their over the top rhetoric,as an attempt to limit their freedom of speech,are,by the same logic attempting to limit the free speech of the people that are criticizing them.

    • Dan Kennan says:

      Evidence is easy to find. Here you go:

      I don’t like Malkin, but she’s got an impressive list here.

      Bush’s assassination was called for in public at nearly every protest.

      Only the right has hate-filled rhetoric? Not having any of that, thank you.

      • Oldskool says:

        Funnily enough not a single one of those images etc, was of a Vice Presidential Nominee, or a Congressman, or any specific representative of a mainstream party.

        I call strawman- you cannot conflate those images with rhetoric of mainstream pundits and supposed leaders of Political Parties.

      • Dan Kennan says:

        Ad hominem is never pretty and I never called you stupid, you fuckwit. Oh, there I did, now we’re even.

        You didn’t actually provide links of anyone but Angle (who is not very mainstream) calling for assassination and violent overthrow…and that’s what this was about.

        But since you went the “you’re stupid” route, we’re done here.

        The point is that violent rhetoric did not cause this attack and everyone knows it…to continue to rail on this is obviously just political theater.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Not one person on that list is a Democratic leader of any type. Using comedians and anonymous people on the street to make your case isn’t going to cut it.

        Can you find any prominent Democrats using rhetoric like that? I’m willing to wager that you can’t.

      • Oldskool says:

        “Oh a Gish Gallop”

        As I consider Duane Gish a reprehensible, self deluding fool, you are right- you never called me stupid, you called me as something much worse than that. I have previously pointed out that I do not believe that this particular attack can be specifically linked to any specific cases of vitriol, however, when you are in an environment when the sort of language is used as per the link ie:

        “Beck: Progressives were lurking like a virus, waiting for their chance to suck all of the blood out of the Democratic neck. They were looking for the opening to infect the system. And once they were inside that system, I warned in 2004, the Democrats — it will be a battle to the end of your party to get them out.

        … What we are talking about is an ideological movement that has set its sights on the destruction of the Constitution and the fundamental transformation of our Republic. It is called the progressive movement, and it has been using both parties for a long, long time.

        But mainly, it’s the Democratic Party that has played host to it. And this parasite has been feeding on that host.” (copied from

        Progressives are out to destroy the constition;

        “If any government destroys our liberty, Broden replied, “we have a right… to get rid of it by any means necessary.” Under further questioning, the self-described “constitutionalist pastor” said that this option was “on the table” this year, though “it is not the first option.” Republican Party officials denounced Broden’s remarks, but did not withdraw support for him.” (copied from below)

        If a Government sets out to destroy our constitution, we have the right to fight back by any means…

        As a right thinking Right wingnut, given those to pieces of information from leaders of the Tea Party, I think we should take up arms and start taking out liberals- that IS what they are saying- isn’t it?

    • Max says:,2933,256650,00.html

      During the Friday night broadcast of his HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher,” Maher and his guests, including Democratic Rep. Barney Frank and former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough, debated the removal of comments from the HuffingtonPost Web log praising the idea of Cheney being assassinated.

      Frank earned applause when he quoted bloggers saying the bomb was wasted when it missed Cheney. Maher asked the panelists whether it was wrong for blog host Arianna Huffington to remove the comments.

      Quoting the blog, Maher said, “I have zero doubt that if Dick Cheney was not in power, people wouldn’t be dying needlessly tomorrow.”

      Asked by Frank if Maher believed that sentiment, the host replied, “I’m just saying if he did die, other people, more people would live. That’s a fact.”

    • Steve says:

      Obama on the campaign trail (2008) as reported in the NY Times: ‘He has also been showing a more pugnacious side, commenting at a Philadelphia fund-raiser Friday that he was prepared for a fight with Republicans, saying, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” ‘

      Link here

  17. Vince says:

    We need to be clear here. With regards to Loughner and patterns there is really only one question and that is does Loughner fit in to a very real pattern that exists or not?

    There is no question of whether there is a pattern of calls for murder and overthrowing the government with guns on the right. The pattern is as clear as anything. From grass roots groups to commentators to politicians such calls are very common and easily documented. Over the course the last week I have seen dozens of them, many that I was already aware of. There is also no question that there is a pattern of people on the right acting on those tendencies and being influenced by , especially, commentators on the right. The Christian militia shooting cops, the church shooter who went to kill liberals because he couldn’t get to every liberal member of Congress as he wished, the Tides Foundation/ACLU killer who was on his way to rememdy thing “Glenn beck had exposed”, and Dr Tiller’s killer to name a handful. The list can go on, especially if you want to go back to the last time there was a Democratic President.

    The left is of course capable of such acts too and there is of course the occasional comment from a politician , commentator and even a questionable graphic. But, the differences are both quantitative and qualitative. There are many more examples for the right and commentators and politicians have decided to make such tendencies a regular and recurring theme within the Republican party. My belief is that this is essentially a marketing decision. Shock sells TV and radio and, politicians want to seem in touch with the currents within their support movements. But this legitimizing of such attitudes does make a difference as is plain from the statements of the killers themselves.

    So was Loughner influenced by this very real pattern? Was the response to the shooting knee-jerk? The answers are “we don’t know” and “yes”. Still, whatever brought up the subject of the quality of our discourse, it is a discussion that is long overdue, worth having and overall has been a positive thing. And though the response was knee-jerk it really wasn’t that out of line given all of the background information.

    On a completely separate note, I would encourage folks to read an article about one of the conspiracy theories that appears to have captured Loughner’s mind. At this link ( you can find a discussion of the sovereign-citizen movement. A right-wing philosophy about taxes and government control echoed quite precisely in Loughner’s mad YouTube ramblings and identified with by Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. Please do not read that suggestion as, “ah ha, see he was a right wing nut.” Just, as people interested in conspiracy theories, I thought there might be some interest in one of them that may have stuck in the mad man’s mind.

    • Dan Kennan says:

      Let’s see some links of a mainstream party representative, or mainstream pundit calling for the murder of political opponents and the overthrow of the govt with guns. I mean mainstream: Neo-nazi sites and local Christian radio does not count. Conditionals (ie: if they start rounding people up, then we overthrow them) do not count.

      If anyone on the right had shown any of the images I linked to with Obama as the subject, it would have been a front-page story…when the left did it, it was obviously viewed as ordinary and acceptable discourse, and so not covered. I saw the Dallas antiwar demos, and these images were the majority of the signs being carried by the spittle-flecked, screamers. I do not assume this is representative of the normal Democrat, and I submit you have a very skewed view of the right. None of the rightwingers I know (and I was born in the South and lived in Texas for decades) bear any resemblance to the stereotyped “Christian Taliban” you seem to see under every bed.

      The mainstream right may be anti-science, and they may be wrong on many or most things, but they are not the violent monsters you portray. If that were true, since they seem to be a majority, you’d have seen far more actual violence.

      • Vince says:

        For now I’m just going to provide one link that is related to what I was trying to say.
        There are many irrelevant items on that list but I don’t have the time to dig up the links right now. Check back at the end of the weekend and I may have had time, and inclination to do so. I would suggest going through that list and finding relevant items, doing google search on Limbaugh and kill liberals, Coulter and kill liberals things like that. It won’t be hard to find.

        It seems like you have missed my point about the qualitative part. Re-reading I recognize it was my fault for sloppy wording in one particular sentence. Where I went wrong was that in the sentence about “grass roots groups, commentators and politicians” I have morphed from direct calls (grass roots) to, for the most part, indirect calls(the others). I knew what I was trying to say but forgot no one else did. The point is that the statements, often times indirect, but not always, made by commentators and even politicians occur against a background of a very real trend and echo and amplify that background. You can’t exclude militia groups, 2nd amendment groups, local radio hosts etc and have got my point.

        When someone like Sharon Angle makes hints about how, if she doesn’t win at the ballot there is lots of ammo being purchased to do the job, this occurs against the background of the fact that there are plenty of people on the right who think just that; individuals and more local groups. Well before Sharon Angle, I have heard people tell me directly the same line she used, almost word for word, as proof that people are worried about Obama turning us in to a dictatorship. And, I have read the same thing elsewhere from individuals. Folks like Angle are well aware of this background and have chosen to use such language as what is sometimes called a “dog whistle”. A tactic of politicians using words and phrases that may not have much meaning to most people but that those in the groups in question will recognize. The most common type of dog whistle being references to religious phrases that will only make sense to those within certain religious groups and that would be objectionable to most people if they understood the meaning. The whole point of a dog whistle marketing tactic is to let people know, “hey I can’t say this more directly but I’m with you.”

        I also want to point out that I do not think that the majority of people on the right approve of violence against the government. That is not what I am saying. I’m saying it is just prevalent enough that politicians and commentators feel that they can capitalize on it. I’m glad you haven’t encountered it yourself. On the other hand I was talking to a Tea Party member and long time friend just the other night who was telling me how, as he and many of his Tea Party compatriots see it, the country is on the brink of civil war. That is of course merely an anecdote, though not an isolated one in my case, and only used to suggest that your experience is not one shared by everyone.

      • Chris Howard says:

        This isn’t a right or Left thing, it’s a right or wrong thing. The left has it’s own history of violence, from the 60’s and 70’s with some examples right up to today. The right is guilty of this, too. Most of my rightwing friends do have a more violent, libertarian streak, that they simply didn”t have prior to the rise of the blathering pundit. But even if they were leftist, they would still be wrong, if they advocated violence. What purpose does hate filled political rhetoric serve? Why have it? Why would someone defend it?

      • Vince says:

        I totally agree about it being right vs wrong and not left vs right thing. And also your statement about the 60’s and 70’s. My point is that the a large quantity of statements is coming from the right currently, not that the left is incapable of such things. My other point is that there is no pattern of exploiting and amplifying the tendencies on the left at this time. One could point to the actions and views of ELF, for example, but what one cannot find is an organized effort by left politicians to hold those actions and views up as reasonable and legitimate.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I agree. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

      • Vince says:

        Oh, I didn’t think you and I disagreed I was just using your response as a platform to clarify my remarks.

        To Dan, regarding the promise of more links I gave: The insurrection timeline provided should be enough to document the attitudes of individuals and local groups. And that these are attitudes that they believe are actionable not merely rhetoric.

        As far as statements by commentators that echo , either directly or indirectly, these attitudes in the grass roots groups, I think there are ample examples given elsewhere in this thread. Also, there are some linked from the insurrection timeline itself if one bothers to sort them out. I have no desire to go back through my browser history and bookmarks and do this more comprehensively, so I’m going to leave it at that.

  18. Oldskool says:

    @ Dan

    Sorry don’t know how to post links- but you should be able to figure it out.

    Now, what were you saying?

  19. minya says:

    i want to know what’s killing the birds and fish in mass numbers. how is it a whole flock of birds just drop dead? i get that animals die, but not a whole flock like that or a whole school of fish.

  20. feralboy12 says:

    So you have a political party that champions the second amendment right to keep & bear arms as being absolutely necessary to potentially fight off a tyrannical, illegitimate or traitorous government, while at the same time accusing liberal democrats as representing exactly that…why is it a surprise that some suggestible person opened fire on a democratic politician? Seems like the logical extension of the Teabaggers’ beliefs.

    • CountryGirl says:

      The tea party’s beliefs are: Restore the constitution, smaller government, lower taxes, no deficit spending and root out corruption. You had to lie and misrepresent the tea party beliefs so that you could slander them.

      • Chris Howard says:

        I think the key here is weather or not a political belief advocates violence, when it loses at the ballot box. It seems to me that a lot of the right today is doing just that. Lost in 08, really angry about it, willing to revolt. Isn’t that counter to a belief in democracy? It just seems like the right is currently acting like a bunch of sore losers, who rather than talk things out, and respect the different opinions, and beliefs of others, are basically saying “Our version/beliefs are correct, end of discussion… oh, and by the way, if you don’t like it, we’re armed.”

      • Wrong again, Country Girl.

        Here’s a tea partier Congressional candidate talking about overthrow of the govt:

        If any government destroys our liberty, Broden replied, “we have a right… to get rid of it by any means necessary.” Under further questioning, the self-described “constitutionalist pastor” said that this option was “on the table” this year, though “it is not the first option.” Republican Party officials denounced Broden’s remarks, but did not withdraw support for him.

        And, Angle:

        And more:

        CountryGirl, you’re like shooting fish in a barrel.

      • tmac57 says:

        Don’t you mean ‘surveying’ fish in a barrel?

      • Tmac … yes!

        Forgot that from the Amalgamated Cut and Paste Union.

        (Of course, folks like CountryGirl and Sunny are too stubborn to admit they’ve been shot.)

      • CountryGirl says:

        fly: Are you then saying that it is acceptable for our government to “destroy our liberty” and we should just lay back and enjoy it? Broden sounds like he is quoting our founders.
        In any event he was NOT quoting the tea parties beliefs he was responding to a question. What do they call that ….ummm… “out of context”!!

      • tmac57 says:

        The ballot box,courts,and freedom of expression are the tools of liberty in a civil society.I didn’t like it when left wing extremists used violence,and threats,and I don’t like it when right wing extremists do the same.No one in this country is entitled to ‘absolute’ liberty.We should all have to answer to and obey the laws of the land,or change them through the political process.Maybe anarchy is more your cup of ‘Tea’?

      • Not out of context, he officially ran as a tea partier. He could have responded differently to the question, and YOU KNOW THAT.

        So, CountryGirl, get a clue, and get some honesty.

        Until then, STFU.

      • Oldskool says:

        Hang- on Country Girl-

        Are you saying that the Government IS destroying your Liberty?

        Why were the Tea Party (right wing Republicans) NOT saying this when the previous Government brought in the Patriot Act, which SPECIFICALLY destroyed your liberty?

        Consistency is a serious issue with the Right Wing on the whole…

      • CountryGirl says:

        tmac: but the point is that neither left wing nor right wing extremist committed violence. This guy was a nut pure and simple. Yes he was left wing but it was not his left wing ideas that caused the violence. He was a nut who’s pot smoking probably made him nuttier and he acted out his nutcase fantasies.

        Don’t you get it! The whole left wing right wing arguement was political and false. Everyone that claimed this was a result of Palin or the tea party was just a dispicable political hack taking advantage of this horrible situation to push their agenda. The were simply not letting a crisis go to waste.

  21. Oh,l how quickly we travel along the downward spiral of off topic babble

  22. Kenn says:

    The death of birds and fish is directly related to righ-wing deniers of global warming and it’s causes.

    The shooting spree in Arizona is directly linked to the Tea Party movement (ask Geraldo) and Sarah Palin in particular.

    In pre-war Germany we blamed Jews for what ails us. Today we attach the blame to everyone right of center.

    • Beelzebud says:

      If you’re comparing the right wing in America to German Jews before WWII, you’re totally out of touch, and have no frame of reference.

      I tire of people like you and Palin trying to play the victim here.

      • CountryGirl says:

        And yet it was indeed Palin and right wing talk show hosts who were victimized by the hateful rhetoric of the left after the incident.

  23. Oldskool says:

    I understand CountryGirl, so when they talk about Death Panels, and point out that Soros is the Liberal Devil come to imprison right thinking americans, and demonise Mexicans, blame the Democrats for the Wall street bail out, even though the process was started by the Republicans, when they encourage crazies to beleive that Obama is not a legitimate President as he was not born in the U.S (he was), when voting for maintaining what was a temporary tax cut for the wealthiest 1% of Americans is more important than assisting 9/11 first responders get medical aid, that is all cool.

    But don’t you dare call them out on anything that THEY might say that may be construed as unhelpful

  24. CountryGirl says:

    And yet they did indeed have death panels!

    I think Soros is a big boy and if he thinks something said about him is incorrect he should speak up. I believe that most of what I know about Soros was when his own words and own acts were exposed. What have you heard?

    I have over my many years met and worked with many Mexican-Americans and a few Mexicans in Mexico. I liked them all. I am aware there are bad people who are of Mexican descent but I have never met them. I think though that you are talking about Mexicans who came here illegally and stole from the U.S. taxpayer. What is your opinion of those Mexicans?

    The president could produce a birth certificate (don’t say he has what was produced was not a birth certificate) instead he has spent over a million to prevent anyone from seeing a birth certificate or proving that one does not exist. Very strange indeed.

    Everyone deserves a tax cut ESPECIALLY the 1% that pay the most in taxes.

    9/11 responders have always gotten medical aid and continue to get medical aid without even having to prove their medical problems were caused by the 9/11 work they did.

    Who are “THEY”?

  25. Oldskool says:

    “And yet they did indeed have death panels!”

    “(don’t say he has what was produced was not a birth certificate)”

    Why are you reading a skeptic Blog- you are so far removed from skepticism that you can’t even see it from there!

    Do some research, learn how wrong you are…

    Given everything you have said above, you have no idea as to what you are talking about, and are not worth talking to.

  26. CountryGirl says:

    And yet you talk to me! Go figure.

    I have always been skeptical of socialized health care. The keyword “skeptical”. What are you skeptical of?