Weighing the Consequences of Political Rhetoric

For the past two years, our political life has been charged with intimations of violence. Tea Party activists have brandished guns at meetings with elected officials. (In 2009, a protester dropped a firearm at one of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Safeway meet and greets.) Republican politicians have hinted at "Second Amendment solutions," in the words of Senate candidate Sharron Angle, to the intolerable tyranny of the Obama administration. Last summer, a conservative radio host told a Tea Party rally, "If ballots don’t work, bullets will." She was later hired as chief of staff for newly elected Congressman Allen West, though controversy soon forced her resignation. Giffords' Tea Party-backed opponent, Jesse Kelly, held a machine-gun-themed campaign event, whose invitation said, "Get On Target For Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Television hosts like Glenn Beck have been warning of the need for armed resistance to imminent totalitarianism. On his radio show in October, for example, he speculated that the government might seize his children because he's refusing to give them the flu vaccine. "You want to take my kids because of that?" he said. "Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson."

Already, unstable individuals have taken such words seriously. In June, a heavily armed man named Byron Williams got in a shootout with California police. He was planning, it emerged, to kill leaders of the Tides Foundation -- a social-justice philanthropy and longtime Beck bête noir -- and the American Civil Liberties Union. Williams' mother told the San Francisco Chronicle that her son watched TV news and was upset by "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items." The Coalition Against Gun Violence has published a comprehensive time line detailing other such acts. Among the perpetrators are Richard Poplawski, who killed three police officers in April 2009 in a paranoid fit about Obama's anti-gun designs, and John Patrick Bedell, a fanatically anti-government libertarian who shot two police officers outside the Pentagon in March 2010.

So when Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Giffords and 18 others on Saturday, it was part of a pattern. Yet among conservatives, there's a frantic effort to deny that there's any political context to this attempted assassination.

"There are people in society that are just going to do these things, unfortunately," a leader of a Tucson-area Tea Party chapter told Talking Points Memo, insisting that her group had no intention of toning down its rhetoric. "And then, what happens is, you know, in this case, people trying to use it to create further divisions between the right and the left." Erik Erikson, the editor of RedState.com, played the victim, tweeting, "The left and media, in perpetuating the lie that the shooter was a tea party activist, may wrongly incite violence against the right." Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho said, "We have to be careful not to blame one side or the other, because both sides are guilty of this. You have extremes on both sides. You have crazy people on both sides."

Certainly, there are crazy people across the political spectrum. But somehow, in recent decades, the vast majority of political violence in this country comes from the right and is directed at either liberals or the federal government. Yes, judging by his incoherent YouTube videos, Loughner was mentally ill, prey less to a coherent ideology than to the hallucinatory fantasy world in his own head. But that fantasy world was informed by the real one. His videos, which mostly feature black and white text, have a few moments of lucidity, and in those moments, Loughner parrots Tea Party obsessions. "The majority of citizens in the United States of America have never read the United States of America's Constitution," he wrote in one titled "My Final Thoughts." "You don't have to accept the federalist laws. Nonetheless, read the United States of America’s Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws."

His mad act was not random. Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, is a former police officer who often consults with law enforcement. He points out that it's hardly uncommon for mentally ill people to commit political violence. "Paranoid people, people with mental illness, try to find very simple, identifiable scapegoats," he says. "When you have political rhetoric that is on a parallel track, that also is increasingly using bizarre conspiratorial theories, it's just kindling for someone who is mentally ill."

In other words, hysterical political rhetoric has consequences. This was true in the late 1960s and 1970s, when a faction of the left romanticized guerilla warfare. And it was true in the 1990s, the last time conservatives regularly indulged in dreams of armed uprising. The Oklahoma City bombing came after years of widespread right-wing demonization of the federal government and was preceded by myriad smaller acts of domestic terrorism.

The Patriot movement, which championed the same issues as the Tea Party, had grown rapidly in the early years of that decade. Bill Clinton was attacked as an agent of a totalitarian New World Order. He was accused, among other things, of setting up Federal Emergency Management Agency concentration camps, a charge that has resurfaced on the contemporary right. A 1994 crop of insurgent Republican House members like Texas' Steve Stockman and Idaho's Helen Chenoweth echoed the militia movement's conspiracy theories -- Chenoweth, for example, accused the government of using black helicopter gunships to enforce the Endangered Species Act. Jesse Helms insinuated that Clinton would be attacked if he dared set foot on a North Carolina military base.

At the same time, right-wing domestic terrorism mounted, often committed by the seriously disturbed and delusional. John Salvi, who murdered two abortion-clinic employees in Massachusetts in 1994, was at least tangentially involved in the Patriot movement, and he was, like Loughner, obsessed with currency manipulation. Salvi was deeply troubled and believed the mafia and the Ku Klux Klan were after him. Defense psychiatrists described him as a paranoid schizophrenic, although a jury rejected his insanity plea. Similarly, Francisco Martin Duran, who fired a semiautomatic rifle at the White House in 1994, was a fan of Patriot-movement radio host Chuck Baker, but he also seems to have believed that aliens were controlling the White House.

Salvi and Duran would have been crazy, and possibly dangerous, even if they weren't political. But the politics of the time influenced the way they acted out. "What these violent and conspiratorial ideologies do is they legitimize, amp up, and direct these aggressive emotional feelings," Levin says.

In the 1990s, Republicans kept flirting with extremist rhetoric right up until Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma. In the immediate aftermath, leading conservatives wailed when they were called on their history of insurrectionary propaganda. Newt Gingrich called connections between his own anti-government stance and McVeigh's "grotesque and offensive," while Rush Limbaugh complained about liberal attempts to whip up "national hysteria."

Eventually, though, it became politically incorrect for Republicans to urge the violent overthrow of the American government. Perhaps something similar might happen again. What's amazing is how many conservatives seem to think that's too much to ask.