In my home state Washington, federal officials recently put away a 64-year-old man who threatened, in the most vile language, to kill Senator Patty Murray because she voted for health care reform. Imagine: kill her because she wanted to give fellow Americans a chance to get well. Why would a public policy change prompt a murder threat?It's seems that in a democracy what distinguishes responsible from irresponsible political speech, unacceptable from acceptable, is the direct or even subtle threat to use violence if you don't get your way. In other words, you can have the most unusual political beliefs--libertarian, communist, or whatever--but if you don't threaten violence, then they are acceptable and even useful, as a way of enriching the dialogue. But if you threaten violence, nothing that you say is acceptable.
Prosecutors here in Washington State told me that the man convicted of making the threats was using language that, in some cases, came word-for-word from Glenn Beck, the Fox demagogue. Every afternoon Charles A. Wilson would sit in his living room and stuff his head with Beck, a man who spouts scary nonsense to millions. Of course, Beck didn’t make the threats or urge his followers to do so.
But it was Beck who said “the war is just beginning,” after the health care bill was passed. And it was Beck who re-introduced the paranoid and racist rants of a 1950s-era John Birch Society supporter, W. Cleon Skousen, who said a one-world government cabal was plotting a takeover.
It’s also worth one more mention of Sharron Angle, the Republican who was nearly elected Senator from Nevada. She agreed with a talk-radio host who suggested that “domestic enemies” — a code for treasonous agents, deserving of death — were working within the walls of Congress. And it was Angle who speculated on whether people frustrated with politicians would turn to “Second Amendment remedies,” which is not even code for assassination. It can only mean one thing.
The federal judge who was murdered on Saturday morning, John M. Roll, received numerous death threats to him and his family after an Arizona talk-radio station went after him because he dared to let a civil rights lawsuit against the state’s harsh immigration law proceed. He needed marshal protection from these rabid radio-inspired opponents of a free and functioning judiciary.
The good news is that already, in just a few days time, this kind of talk from Beck, Palin and Angle is now being seen for what it really is — something not to be touched by fair citizens or ambitious politicians. And the long-overdue revulsion is because such poisons — death threats in place of reasoned argument, fetishizing of guns, glib talk of “taking someone out” — were used so carelessly, as if they didn’t matter.
Monday, January 10, 2011
Death Threats as Politics
Timothy Egan writes about the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords of Arizona: