Gabrielle Gifford and the Scapegoat Mechanism


January 9, 2011 by Ron Madson

Saturday I spent most of the day with my youngest son—stacking firewood, snow shoeing and working on his English paper on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—I was with my son most of the day, but my mind was elsewhere. During the first part of the day I could not stop thinking of the theological significance of the moving and thoughtful post by Tristan Call entitled “My Family is Illegal.” Then when I heard the news of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and the incendiary rhetoric that had been directed towards her before this shooting, a melancholy set in.  Maybe it is only for my own therapy, but I feel a need to write something to try to make sense of “all of this.”  Having posting privileges with the Mormon Worker I have an outlet to share what may be jumbled thoughts—so bear with me—I am doing this even before it has time to settle in my mind….

I first watched Franco Zefirilli’s Romeo and Juliet when I was in ninth grade.  I was taken with the movie and Shakespeare.  Since then I watched that movie several times during the last forty years and each time I still tense up just irrationally hoping that this time that somehow, something will happen to allow Romeo and Juliet to not be the victims of their family’s enmity.   But the scourge of hate led inexorably to the loss of both family’s greatest joys for which “all are punished.”

As has been so brilliantly developed and articulated by Rene Girard, throughout history and as consistently depicted in great literature, mankind has demonstrated the almost universal scapegoat mechanism.   In simple terms, the scapegoat mechanism is the act of singling out any party or individual for unmerited negative treatment or blame.  A scapegoat may by a child, employee, peer, ethnic or religious group, or even another country.  As explained by Girard, the scapegoat mechanism arises when at least two individuals, but more often groups, desire the same thing which rivalry can and often grows into an intensifying competition for the object of their desires.  These individuals/groups grow in increasingly animosity for which a “contagion” arises where those in rivalry begin to mimic each other’s hatred and animosity— which inevitably escalates to the point of violence.  Then into this contagion somehow, someone or some group is identified as a “common enemy” or source of the crisis.  This scapegoat, whether an individual or a group, then absorbs all the antagonism of these individuals, mobs or even a country.   Then once the identified victim(s) absorbs the violence of the contagion, the warring factions are appeased believing in their collective myth that it is the scapegoat that is the source of their rivalry.  Then over time they begin to deify the sacrificial victim(s) as having brought peace through his/her/their sacrifice—“it is better that one man perish than…” pick your desired end.  When the scapegoat is found with fault then those in the contagion/rivalry can ignore/deny their collective sins that led to the scapegoats’ victimization by blaming the need for violence on the scapegoat alone—thus burying the truth that the source of the contagion began and ended with the perpetuators of the violence rather then the victim.    However, when the victims of the crisis, such as Romeo and Juliet, are innocent then the “ancient grudge” is revealed and cannot be buried under the cairn of lies.  Those that placed innocent children and/or even a group (think Holocaust) on their altar are then forced to face squarely their collective evil that led to their individual and collective antagonism that found its expression in violence—from the slaying of Abel to the last predator drone bomb exploding in some child’s bedroom.

It was haunting to see the archives of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s interviews after her office was vandalized after she had voted for “Obama Care” health care reform.  She spoke of the vitriolic threats of violence upon her person that the interviewee saw as something that should cause her to fear for her safety.  Gabrielle spoke calmly about her concern for the extreme antagonism from both the extreme right and the extreme left.  By all accounts Gabrielle was a moderate that sought to reach out and help her constituents.  But at the last election in November she was “targeted” with such venom that one could not ignore the ascending violent imagery of her opponents:

Without recounting all the antagonism she had previously faced and was facing on the day of her being shot, as well as the statements of some at the rally that were pleased that now she could be replaced with a “conservative,” her father, who we can be sure was very aware of the many threats and their sources directed to his precious daughter, was quoted as saying when asked if his daughter had any enemies responded by saying “Yeah.  The whole Tea Party.”  It should be mentioned that the Federal District Court Judge Roll had ruled that illegal immigrants could bring a claim against a rancher for which he also received death threats (“we should kill him and “He should be dead” was voiced on a local talk radio with 200 callers identified as supporting the such a proposition and posting personal information as to the Judge and his family).

The purpose of this post is not to draw a direct line between the far right rhetoric and this gravely evil act, but to expose the full gravity of the scapegoat mechanism generated from one rival to another.   If there was or is any rhetoric from the “far left” advocating violence or mimicking such violence then it should be equally condemned and exposed.  But we can only address the hatred and evil antagonism that we know exists.  Such rhetoric should be fully owned and placed squarely on any individuals or groups that have or continue to perpetuate such words that lead predictably, even if indirectly, to such violence.  The innocence of Gabrielle, the nine year old girl (ironically born on 9/11/2001), Judge Roll and others should deflect any attempts by those who have been part of the contagion leading to their deaths from not taking full accountability for any part that they may have contributed to the environment that fosters and then climaxes in such evil.

So what about Tristan Call’s “Illegal family”?   I recently watched a History Channel program with my wife called “Prophets of Doom” which had a panel of seven contemporary experts discussing the inevitable and multiple crisis that are upon us or at our doorstep as a nation and world—peak oil, water shortages, starvation, economic collapse (mathematically unavoidable), war, etc. etc.   They all agreed that as a nation we will face increasing shortages and a significant reduction in our lavish standard of living for which there will be an ever increasing sense of crisis.   We can and should feel it in our bones that the scapegoat mechanism will continue.  And who will be targeted?  The same individuals and groups from the foundation of recorded history—anyone and every group that the mob senses is a minority, weak and powerless.  In Germany it was the Jews.  Today it has been and will continue to be illegal immigrants, racial minorities, those on welfare or government assistance, the weak, powerless and anyone who supports the weak—in short the “others.”  For a decade we have placed much of our animosity on entire nations and their citizens through our wars of aggression.  But whatever common appeasement/peace internally we might have gained from focusing on the “terrorists” and/or “insurgents” is losing its grip.  First, because one can kill only so many civilians in another nation without satiating one’s blood lust and secondly, the “justifications” for killing those in those countries has been exposed to any rational and honest person as being founded and continued on deceit. One need not be a prophet to see the coming contagion and scapegoat mechanism that is rapidly rising and will continue to grow within our own nation against the “others.”

What will impeach this contagion and scapegoat mechanism?   I believe that today’s ugly killings and maiming will abate the contagion and, of necessity, significantly reduce (or at least it should) those voices/rhetoric that promote such violence or at least its’ imagery.  Any individuals or groups that do not distance themselves from such violent images and voices deserve to be marginalized not only because it exposes the darkness of their hearts, but also based on their sheer political stupidity.   However, I am convinced that this moment of soberness will not last.  Only the desire for real charity for the “others” within the hearts of true Christians, true Muslims, Buddhists or others who embrace the messages of peace within their faith  can avoid the inevitable rivalry that will increase with escalating national and world crisis (every faith, including agnostics and atheists, have within their ranks those that gravitate towards the messages of peace and those that find excuses for violence and the “us versus them” thinking rooted in anger and fear).

So why do I have this sense of melancholy?  Because despite the voices such as Tristan Call and Katy Savage, and an occasional voice within each congregation, it appears to me that the majority of those in our faith embrace the scapegoat mechanism—-support our foreign wars killing innocent civilians everyday, have enmity towards illegal immigrants (I am talking about you Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce); contempt towards poor, uninsured, and anyone who might take even a slightly increase of our wealth in taxes to fund social services.  Yes Utah takes pride in being a “red” state, and in fact the “reddest state.”  Call us Mormons, but as to being Christians—the jury is still out for all of us.   When the Lord returns he promises us that he will separate the “sheep from the goats.”  His sheep are those that stood up for the victims of the scapegoat mechanism (Matthew 25) and not those that participated in either word or deed to the contagion that always ends in the violence we saw today.

We must transcend the “blood and sins of this generation by applying the gospel of Christ.  Our affection must reach out to all, even our enemies.  If not then the blood of “others/ the least” will surely one day also be on our hands and it will be a “plague on both our houses”—both us and our rivals.  May the victims of January 8, 2010 not be in vain and serve as a wakeup call that we must reject all forms of the scapegoat mechanism that leads to such violence.

* “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” Joseph Smith Jr.

11 thoughts on “Gabrielle Gifford and the Scapegoat Mechanism

  1. Mikhail says:

    Awesome post. You point out many variables that have created a melancholy for myself as well. Thank you for this.

    • Ron Madson says:

      Mikhail—what is depressing is that the “scapegoat mechanism” seems irretrievable. Moderate Mo’s link above evidences the reality of the “mimetic rivalry” that is integral to the scapegoat mechanism. THe extremes on both sides resort to parallel antagonism and the vocabulary of violence. What I think is different is that while violent rhetoric is used on both the right and left by the “unhinged” and ignorant, there are certain leaders on the right that out of sheer stupidity have promoted such discourse.

      Thanks Moderate Mo—the link confirms Girard’s thesis. We need to expose and denounce such rhetoric/language from whatever the source.

  2. tacky woolhat says:

    I’m finding it difficult to go along with your assumption near the end of the post to the effect that things will calm down now that the shooting has exposed the consequences of hate speech. We didn’t see any real drop-off in disgusting misogynist garbage following the assassination last year of an abortion doctor- and that assassination was carried out by someone who was unrepentant and apparently sane. The perp in this case seems to be genuinely unhinged and not particularly political, at least not in the calculating sense of Palin et al. So there’s even less of an overt reason for anyone involved in slandering the congresswoman previously to tone things down- after all, the story will go, ‘this guy was just a nut, and it’s a tragedy, but he didn’t have anything to do with us.’ I think beyond minimal displays of tact (such as taking down the repulsive ‘targeted congressman’ website) we’ll see an increase in this kind of rhetoric, because it’s obviously working as intended. With a demographic as collectively deranged and racist and scared as white middle-class America, no amount of incitement to violence is too little and no amount of raw hate can be enough. These people are not so much creating the wave as riding it.

    I think we really are past some kind of critical point again in our history where freakish violence is acceptable to large majorities of the ruling classes to restore order. We saw the FBI invade anti-war activists’ homes (shades of the Palmer Raids, COINTELPRO etc.) and since the early 90’s we’ve seen a sharp increase in white nationalist activity (David Duke, the militia movement). Just like the post-bellum South or the late 60’s, we’ve entered some kind of new crisis and the gloves have come off. The question now is what the consequences of the new violence will be. Is the fact the we’re now seeing more anti-government rhetoric from the mob than we used to just a smoke screen or is it something real? Some people are saying that the radical right is now not only fascist but actually revolutionary. I don’t know if I agree, but when congresswomen show up to meet their constituents and wind up in critical condition at a hospital it’s a difficult argument to ignore.

  3. Ron Madson says:


    I think, unfortunately, you are correct. I assumed that this event would abate this “scapegoat contagion” but I also mentioned that “I do not think it will last.” I do agree with you that it appears that we may have crossed some critical of tipping point where in certain entire groups the use of group violence or revolution is at least verbally being expressed as acceptable and even necessary. Sharon Angle’s comment regarding the need for 2nd amendment solutions and even revolution if things do not change to her and her party’s mission. What is troubling is not that there is not unhinged and wackos such as Loughner in every party and movement, but that now for the first time we see the boldness of leaders such as Angle and Palin and others embracing and promoting thinly veiled threats of violence and even revolution—such rhetoric being “mainstream” and acceptable in their movements. The firewalls of civility have been taken down allowing more and more of the fringe to feel that their radical and violent actions are acceptable and even justified. The scapegoat mechanism is crescendoing as you pointed out in your examples.
    I agree that it might not even abate but RELOAD

  4. J. Madson says:

    I think a larger issue here as well is the way in which we decry violence in our culture when its directed at someone in our “tribe” Sure, we can all decry the killing of a congresswoman but people are murdered every day. In fact, many of those people are murdered because of decisions by our government and votes taken in congress. We are a violent people. There is nothing unique about this act of violence other than it is not being directed oversees at someone who talks and looks different.

    I abhor all of this violence, but I do find it revealing how quick this act of violence is condemned while hundreds of innocents are still murdered almost daily in far away lands.

  5. Moderate Mo says:

    Links / references for all the below incidents can be found at:

    Chris Matthews fantasizing on air about seeing Rush Limbaugh shot in the head.

    Sandra Bernhard: Sarah Palin should be gang raped if she comes to New York.

    The Craig Kilborn Show superimposing the words “Snipers Wanted” over the face of President George W. Bush.

    Nobel “Peace Prize” winner Betty Williams publicly stating her desire to murder President George W. Bush.

    Pelosi and company slander teens and toddlers calling them Nazis.

    British film makers Gabriel Range and Simon Finch making a 2006 movie fantasizing about assassinating President George W. Bush.

    Alec Baldwin urging the murder of Henry Hyde, his family, and ALL Congressional Republicans and their families on national television.

    NPR commentator and ABC News reporter Nina Totenberg wishes death by AIDS on Senator Jesse Helms and/or his grandchildren here.

    Julianne Malveaux publicly wishes death on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas here.

    There are literally hundreds of videos currently viewable on YouTube of Bush being burned in effigy.

    Congressman Paul Kanjorski On Florida Governor Rick Scott: “Put him against the wall and shoot him.”

    • tariq says:

      If you’re so moderate, then why is all of your information coming from a far right wing website? I disagree with the notion that the rhetoric from the far right and the far left is equally crazy. People on the left called Bush a terrorist because he quite literally presided over a campaign of terror against Iraq and Afghanistan. Under his watch, torture and repression became official policy. People on the right base their hatred and anger on nonsense, like ideas that Obama isn’t really a citizen, queer people want to destroy straight people’s families, that all arabs are enemies of America, and that capitalism was instituted by God. I’m not saying no craziness comes from the left, but let’s be real for a moment. Most homegrown violence in the U.S. is a right wing phenomenon. There is a small percentage of leftists who might make a poster with a picture of a guillotine, but the people who actually get guns and shoot congresswomen, or kill abortion doctors, or join militias to train for their fantasy civil war, or blow up a building in Oklahoma, or go into the holocaust museum and start shooting, or beat up and/or kill queer people, are right wing nuts. A small percentage of left wing nuts might talk violently, but right wing nuts actually act violently. Furthermore, the anger of the left is justified and is based on real oppression. The anger of the right is ridiculous and is based on misinformation from the likes of FOX News, am talk radio, and white supremacist websites. For example, we have learned from his own ramblings, that the mentally unstable man who shot Gabrielle Giford and killed others, was a fan of the right wing white supremacist newsletter “American Renaissance”. The left and right are not equally violent or crazy. Let’s get some perspective here.

      It reminds me of a few months ago when John Stewart (who I think is very funny and talented), grouped right-wing tea-party nuts in the same category as Code Pink who called Bush a war criminal. Yes, both groups are equal in that they are loud and confrontational, but they most certainly are not equal in terms of content. Tea partiers were making ridiculous claims about Obama being an illegal alien and his watered down, nothing health-care plan being a radical socialist scheme (even though real radical socialists hated the plan). While Code Pink, on the other hand, yes, were loud and outrageous, but their claims were correct. Bush most certainly did break some of his own country’s laws as well as international laws in the execution of his idiotic war, and he most certainly is a war criminal, as the majority of the world says. There is such a thing as righteous indignation, and there is nothing wrong with being outraged about torture, war, racism, homophobia, and economic exploitation.

  6. Ron Madson says:

    Moderate Mo,

    Thank you! Your links illustrate the thesis of my post—even if I did not make it as clear as I should have. The “scapegoat mechanism” is created when you have two factions engaging in Mimetic Rivalry. Each side is a “mime” of the other, that is, they increasingly mimic the antagonism of the other. As you might recall, Gabrielle GIffords referred to the vitriolic rhetoric from both the left and the right extremes. They mirror each other while both claiming justice and not really wanting to encourage violence. The unhinged and lunatics in their ranks take their cues from such rhetoric that breaks down the firewalls of civility. I think it is our duty to denounce such words and threats no matter the source.
    Another point I tried to make is that as we see more and more crisis and/or scarcity we are likely to see the antagonism ratchet up and up.

    J. Madson above get it right in my opinion. We are stunned by the six killed and dozen injured when we have through the same type of misguided anger/injustice scapegoated entire nations and murdered hundreds of thousands of citizens—a “common enemy” as our scapegoat. The problem with our imperial wars is that they are at their core unjust and immoral–the Iraqi citizens were no more at fault in causing 9/11 then Sarah Palin or Rush LImbaugh shooting at Tucson.

  7. J. Madson says:

    CBS Poll

    The poll shows that while three in four Americans say violence against the government is never justified, 16 percent say it can be justified — the same percentage that said as much in April. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans said such violence can be justified, compared with 11 percent of Democrats and independents.

  8. stories of child abuse…

    […]Gabrielle Gifford and the Scapegoat Mechanism « The Mormon Worker[…]…

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