The recent spate of gun violence—the massacre at a Binghamton immigrant aid center on Friday, the slaying of three Pittsburgh police officers on Saturday, and a fatal shooting at a Christian retreat center in California last night—has inspired a lot of finger pointing, with liberal bloggers blaming some on the right for inciting paranoia about gun rights. Specifically, the targets have been Fox News loon Glenn Beck and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, who, like Pittsburgh cop killer Richard Poplawski, believe that the Obama administration is planning to take away gun ownership rights, among other things. Salon’s Alex Coppelman helped put things in perspective, claiming that every time there’s a crime committed by a person with a known political grievance, one party “goes on the attack, claiming their opponents are responsible for the deaths, while the other counterattacks, saying their opponents are just exploiting the tragedy.”
While this may be an accurate observation, it doesn’t mean that nobody bears responsibility for fanning the flames of a few crazies’ fires. It may be unfair to blame the entire Republican Party for the ostensibly mentally unstable Poplawski’s brutal ambush of three civil servants over the weekend, and the Binghamton shooter was reportedly motivated by the loss of his job and his inability to speak English (shame and humiliation are both known triggers for this kind of violence, and are more frequent during economic downturns), but the right’s loudest voices, if not the most lucid or most popular, have been spewing outrageous rhetoric and calling for extreme action since before Barack Obama even took office. To be sure, the smears began before he even won the election.
I asked the question last year, and it bears repeating: What is the right so pissed off about? Republicans ran the country for years—and not just any Republicans, but the most extreme faction of the party. The Bush administration’s neocon-designed policies were some of the most radical the country had seen in decades, if ever, and the left was rightfully enraged. But if the left’s rage felt immediate, in the form of eggs splattering against the side of the then-newly christened president’s limousine, it was because of the nature of his election, not his policies—at least at first. There was early opposition to George W. Bush’s policies (and make no mistake, they were radical from the outset), but no one called for a revolution. And it wasn’t until Iraq spiraled into uncontainable violence and the administration’s corruption and war crimes hit the front pages that the most visible on the left finally started pounding the pavement.
And there’s one more important caveat: The right isn’t upset about what Obama has done, but what they’re afraid he’s going to do. So where is this fear coming from? I once jokingly likened Keith Olbermann to Howard Beale, and now Olbermann has taken to likening Beck, who routinely bursts into crying jags, to Harold Hill, the conman from The Music Man. But Beale is probably more like it. Even the abhorrent Michael Savage thinks Beck is a few bricks short of a solid foundation: “I’m afraid the guy’s going to have a nervous breakdown on the air,” he spat. “This guy’s on the edge everyday.” Beck defended himself against the assertion that his rhetoric is influencing people like the Pittsburgh gunman by saying that blaming anyone other than Poplawski himself “is like blaming the flight attendant after a terrorist takes down a plane,” comparing what he does on the air every night to giving the passengers of a plane “a nice little safety talk to prepare them.” Creepy.
For her part, Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann has been disseminating a litany of paranoid nonsense, from the elimination of the U.S. dollar to Senator Edward Kennedy’s desire to use “re-education camps” to brainwash the country’s youth. She has repeatedly called for a revolution, most recently on Sean Hannity’s radio show: “It’s like Thomas Jefferson said, a revolution every now and then is a good thing.” She followed that cherry bomb by reframing it as an “orderly revolution,” but her language—calling for citizens to be “armed and dangerous”—and the urgency with which she and others have been sounding the alarm is disturbing. “We can’t let the Democrats achieve their ends any longer!” she warned Hannity, who literally started singing hallelujahs. Evidently Republicans have a much lower threshold of tolerance than Democrats when it comes to not being in power. A whopping two and a half months of policies they don’t agree with is apparently just too much to handle.
The DailyKos’s Markos Moulitsas put it best when, in 140 characters or less, he offered this: “When [Democrats] were out of power, we organized to win the next election. Conservatives, apparently, prefer to talk ’revolution’ and kill cops.” For years Olbermann called for Congress, the courts, and the voters to take action against the Bush administration, but even at his most smug, at his most righteously indignant, he simply appealed for legal avenues of action. There was no coded language that could be misinterpreted as a plea for extra-legal action. We have elections in this country, a concept Bachmann, who nearly lost hers last fall after proposing a congressional socialist witch hunt on Hardball with Chris Matthews, clearly doesn’t grasp.
You can’t ignore these hysterical Chicken Littles because they’ve been given a national public platform with which they are instilling this paranoia in their audiences and/or solidifying the fears of those who would do exactly what they’re advocating: take extreme action. The most dangerous thing about charlatans is the people who follow them. But it’s not just the fringe that’s propagating fear: Dick Cheney has publicly derided Obama’s national security policies, claiming they are weakening the country. How long will it be before one of these guns is pointed at the president or his family in the name of protecting America?
To hear it from the lips of Obama himself, personal responsibility is no longer just a virtue espoused by the right. Coppelman is right to say that it’s foolish to point fingers when it comes to gun violence. But when a pattern develops, all of the contributing factors need to be examined. And when the violence runs rampant, policies are worth examining too. No one in the Democratic Party advocates taking people’s guns away. Banning weapons altogether is unlikely to stop criminals from getting their hands on them—prohibition and the drug war have taught us that. But reinstating the Federal Assault Weapons Ban along with stricter overall regulation, like closing the gun show loophole and requiring permits for carrying a concealed firearm, might—might—keep guns out of the hands of just a few loose screws. Of course, then there might not be anyone left to lead Bachmann’s revolution.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.