Can right-wing hate talk lead to murder?

Two terror events in two weeks makes me wonder if media extremists might turn down the ugly rhetoric for a bit.

By Joan Walsh

Published June 11, 2009 12:11AM (EDT)

I was on "Hardball" today talking about the climate of extreme right-wing rhetoric today, and whether it had anything to do with Wednesday's tragic shooting at Washington's Holocaust Museum, or the May 31 murder of Dr. George Tiller by an antiabortion crackpot.

I tried to choose my words carefully. Unless it's shown that either man had accomplices, we have to be clear that the men responsible for those murders are the ones who pulled the trigger. Still, it's hard not to think about the extreme right-wing rhetoric, especially about Barack Obama, and whether it could conceivably lead to more right-wing violence. You can see whether I succeeded here (more text follows the video):

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The range of crazy ideas about Obama is broad and wide: He's a secret Muslim, he's going to take our guns, he's even the anti-Christ! James von Brunn just happened to be a "birther," one of the nuts who believe that Obama wasn't born here, his birth certificate is fake, and he thus isn't eligible to be president. I thought it was strange and maybe a little ominous last summer when suddenly Obama was labeled a "socialist" and a "Marxist"; Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are arguably more liberal than Obama; why did he get tagged with that sinister, subversive, alien ideology? It seemed linked to the fact that he's just so … different from other politicians, so easy to marginalize and, frankly, demonize.

Then came Rush Limbaugh with his sexual fears about having to "bend over and grab the ankles" for a black president. Soon Limbaugh was saying he hoped Obama fails; last week he said Obama was more dangerous to our country than al-Qaida, our terrorist enemy who has killed thousands of Americans. Could that conceivably inflame someone marginal and isolated to act against a president who's more dangerous than terrorists?

If there's a through-line between any of these acts of terrorism and the right-wing rhetoric that abets it, of course, it's the one linking Bill O'Reilly to Scott Roeder, the man who murdered Tiller. O'Reilly more than demonized Tiller; night after night he called him a baby killer, compared him to the Nazis, and suggested that he must be stopped. Roeder stopped him, all right. If I were O'Reilly I'd feel terrible for putting a private figure in my public sights night after night, simply for doing his lawful job. But O'Reilly has no conscience, so he's proud of it.

And there's clearly been an uptick in rhetoric suggesting that white men are having their rights abridged by the Obama administration, especially since his pick of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. In a debate with Buchanan a couple of weeks ago, he told me that what was happening to white men was exactly what happened to black men — he didn't give me any examples of lynching — and that it was open season on white men. Wealthy Sen. Lindsay Graham suggested an average white guy like himself wouldn't get a fair shake from Sotomayor, and now even the new face of the GOP, Michael Steele, has said the same thing. If I were a marginal, unemployed, angry, racist white man right now, I'd be hearing a lot of mainstream conservative support for my point of view. Can that help create a climate for more violence? I don't know. I hope not, but I don't know.

What should happen now? Ironically, a great example of the right-wing echo chamber's bullying came when they managed to smack down the release of a Department of Homeland Security report about the rise of right-wing extremism. Judging from the right's rhetoric, you'd have thought Janet Napolitano was suggesting rounding up Rush and his dittoheads and putting them in an old Japanese-American internment camp or something. But in fact, as Susan Page explained today on "Hardball," the calm nine-page report merely looked at warning signs for extremism, based on history: They include a prolonged economic downturn, the demonization of immigrants, the election of the first black president, fears about losing the right to own guns, a banking crisis inciting age-old paranoia about "Jewish cabals" and the return of many veterans to the States suffering from PTSD and other conditions while getting insufficient care.

Presciently, the report said the top perceived threat was a "lone wolf": "White supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy — separate from any formalized group — which hampers warning efforts." DHS, meet James von Brunn, whose wife divorced him because of his hatred, racism, paranoia and violence.

But the right-wing echo chamber went nuts about the report. Rush called it "crap," thundering, "There is not one instance they can cite as evidence where any of these right-wing groups have done anything." Rep. Michele Bachmann crowed: "To me, it looks like the extremists are those running the DHS." John Boehner called it "offensive" and said, "Unfortunately, Secretary Napolitano still has a lot of explaining to do." Newt Gingrich harrumphed that "the person who drafted the outrageous homeland security memo smearing veterans and conservatives should be fired." And Rep. Peter Burgess said Napolitano herself should "step down, and let's move on."

Will any of them apologize to Napolitano now? Dream on.

And who will apologize to the family of Stephen Tyrone Johns, the brave security man at the Holocaust Museum shot by von Brunn. How von Brunn, a felon who'd used a gun in his earlier crime, still had the right to carry a gun, I'll never understand. He killed a black man who'd spent six years protecting a monument to the triumph of love and brotherhood over hate and division. My condolences and prayers go out to Johns' family.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama James Von Brunn Rush Limbaugh Terrorism