On Sunday, Jerad and Amanda Miller killed two Las Vegas police officers and a shopper at a nearby Walmart, then took their own lives. When authorities investigated, they found that the two were likely motivated by their hatred of government. "There is no doubt that the suspects have an ideology that's along the lines of militia and white supremacists," said an assistant sheriff on Monday. After shooting the officers, they draped the bodies with Gadsden flags; the Millers had also spent time at the standoff at the Bundy ranch. Yesterday, I asked in a piece at the Washington Post how much the hyperbolic rhetoric of which we've heard so much from so many on the right in recent years contributes to creating an atmosphere in which this kind of violence becomes more likely. After hearing some reactions and having a little more time to think about it, I have some more to add.
But first, what I said was that the problem isn't just the violent rhetoric we sometimes hear from the likes of Glenn Beck, and not just the conspiracy theories, but also the generally apocalyptic tone conservatives use to describe even ordinary political disagreements, in which every Obama administration initiative is a tyrannical nightmare sounding the death knell of freedom and the end of America as we know it. Here's my conclusion:
But the argument that no sane person could actually believe many of the things conservatives say shouldn't absolve them of responsibility. When you broadcast every day that the government of the world's oldest democracy is a totalitarian beast bent on turning America into a prison of oppression and fear, when you glorify lawbreakers like Cliven Bundy, when you say that your opponents would literally destroy the country if they could, you can't profess surprise when some people decide that violence is the only means of forestalling the disaster you have warned them about.
To be clear, the connection I'm drawing isn't a direct one; I'm not arguing that an hour of Rush Limbaugh is going to turn a mild-mannered citizen into a murderer. But some people who are already imbalanced may be finding direction and validation in what they hear in supposedly respectable quarters.
On Twitter, multiple conservatives responded to my argument by reminding me of the 2012 case in which a man shot a security guard at the headquarters of the Family Research Council, apparently out of anger at the conservative group. That was indeed an awful event (fortunately, the guard survived), but it was one event. Conservative billionaires may periodically muse that they're about to be rounded up and herded off to concentration camps, but in the actual America of today, politically motivated violence from left-wingers is so rare as to be almost non-existent. On the other hand, here are a few of the things that have happened just since Barack Obama became president:
- April 2009: Richard Poplawski kills three Pittsburgh police officers. Friends told the press that Poplawski, who posted to white supremacist web sites, was worried that Obama was coming to take everyone's guns away.
- April 2009: Joshua Cartwright, a U.S. Army reservist, kills two police officers at a gun range. His wife tells the police he was "severely disturbed" that Barack Obama had been elected president and believed the government was conspiring against him.
- May 2009: Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist, guns down Dr. George Tiller at Tiller's church.
- June 2009: White supremacist James Wenneker von Brunn kills a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
- February 2010: Joseph Stack flies a small plane into an IRS office in Austin, TX, killing himself and one IRS official and injuring many others. Stack left behind a manifesto complaining about the tax agency. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) responds by saying, "It's sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it's an agency that is unnecessary and when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it's going to be a happy day for America."
- October 2011: Holly Ann Grigsby and Joey Pedersen, two white supremacists, go on a multi-state crime spree that begins with killing Pedersen's parents, then adds murders of a middle-aged black man and a young man they thought looked Jewish.
- December 2011: Members of a Georgia anti-government militia group called FEAR (Forever Enduring Always Ready) kill two of their compatriots, and are found to be preparing a campaign of bombings and assassinations.
- August 2012: Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, kills 6 people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI.
- August 2012: a group of people associated with the "sovereign citizens" movement kills two police officers and injures two more in St. John, LA.
- April 2014: Frazier Glenn Cross kills three people at a Jewish community center and Jewish retirement home.
And that doesn't even count the many plots for murder and mayhem that authorities have stopped (many of which are detailed here). But as Radley Balko suggested, maybe this just isn't that big a problem:
Balko is starting after the Oklahoma City Bombing, which is fine. It's true that in terms of things you should be worried out affecting you personally, right-wing terrorism ranks pretty low. But that isn't really the question. If you could wind back the clock and replay the last five years, but this time with conservatives expressing their disagreement with Barack Obama and their concerns about the size of government in saner terms, would any of these incidents be averted? Who knows.
But for all that time, people with enormous influence—prominent politicians, media figures with huge audiences—have been pouring poison into Americans' ears. Even if they aren't directly or even indirectly at fault when another couple of anti-government nuts decide to go shoot some cops, they still have to answer for their contribution to how ugly and hateful American political debate has become. If their defense is, "Well, I'm not responsible for any particular right-wing terrorist plot," that's an awfully low bar.