When an incident like that of the man in Austin who flew his plane into an IRS building happens, it's tempting to use it to bash the hell out of one's opponents. And frankly, in this case it's not unreasonable to do so. When conservatives incessantly portray taxes as the theft of a tyrannical government from hard-working people, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that some start to take that argument seriously.
But is it fair to extend the circle of blame for actions like this one to those who preach hatred of the government? What about the case of Jim Adkisson, who after writing a note which said that "liberals are a pest like termites … the only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is kill them in the streets," walked in to a Unitarian church in Knoxville and opened fire, killing two people and injuring seven others? Police later found in Atkisson's home a collection of books by the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, and Sean Hannity, the common theme of which is that liberals are destroying America. Or what about Richard Poplawski, a Glenn Beck fan, who believed that Barack Obama's election meant that the government would come take his guns, and responded by killing three Pittsburgh police officers?
Obviously, no member of Congress or pundit wants people to start shooting up churches, or killing cops, or flying airplanes into government buildings. But it's too easy to say that those of us who attempt to persuade others to share our political views bear no responsibility for how the persuaded act on their beliefs. The line between responsible and irresponsible rhetoric isn't just a function of ideological extremism, either. You can take an extreme position -- say, that all public schools ought to be abolished so that children should only be able to get the private education their parents can afford -- and express it in a way that doesn't imply that violence might be the best or only way to achieve this end. You can be extremely critical of the government without telling people that if we don't do something, the government is going to start killing us. It's those kind of messages that people can take and turn into acts of murder and mayhem.
And yes, conservatives need to be particularly sensitive to this. That may seem unfair, but it's just the way it is. People on the fringes of the left may have planted bombs in the 1960s, but those days are long gone. The radical leftists are pretty harmless. The radical rightists, on the other hand, are the ones stockpiling weapons and talking about the coming civil war.
We had a discussion about this in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City to express his outrage at the government. At a time when everyone is so taken with a tea party movement that involves a lot of conspiracy mongering and rhetoric about how a stimulus plan or health-care reform means we've tumbled into a socialist nightmare, it might be worth having it again.
-- Paul Waldman