Conservatives' rhetoric more violent by far

Both sides use overheated language, but it's the right that carries its argument too far

January 10, 2011|By Thomas F. Schaller

In the wake of Saturday's attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there will be calls to cool the passions and rhetoric of political extremists on both sides of the American ideological spectrum.

It's true that the nation's increasingly polarized discourse includes both liberals and conservatives with sharp tongues and even sharper elbows.

But when it comes to veiled and not-so-veiled calls for violence, there is a glaring and undeniable asymmetry: It is almost always conservatives who incite, condone and even engage in violence as a "legitimate" means of political expression.

The laundry list here is long and soiled. And I'm not only talking about those 20 Democratic House members, including Ms. Giffords, whom Sarah Palin "targeted" in an online graphic, complete with rifle sight crosshairs. (By the way, if Ms. Palin was a woman who truly stuck to her political guns, so to speak, why did she so quickly scrub her websites of said graphics?)

The media have reported that someone showed up at an earlier Giffords public event carrying a gun, and that her office was vandalized last March after the congresswoman voted for the health care reform bill. Not widely broadcast, however, are many other examples of violent rhetoric, incitements to violence and actual gunplay during the 2010 campaign — all of them involving Republican congressional candidates:

•On Oct. 9, 2009, House candidate Robert Lowry of Florida held an event at a Broward County gun range during which he fired at a series of symbolic political targets, including a silhouette with his opponent Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz's initials on it.

•On Jan. 10, 2010, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle spoke of the need for "Second Amendment remedies" to congressional policies, and specifically called for "taking out" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

•On May 10, 2010, House candidate Brad Goehring from California's 11th District wrote on his Facebook page: "If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits on how many taken as we desperately need to 'thin' the herd."

•Jesse Kelly, the Republican who ran against Ms. Giffords last cycle, held an event on June 12, 2010, advertised locally as follows: "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 With Jesse Kelly."

•On Oct. 21, 2010, Dallas pastor and House candidate Stephen Broden said the violent overthrow of the U.S. government in 2010 should not be "the first option," but citizens ought to use "any means necessary" and that violence should remain an option "on the table."

Of this last episode, the Dallas County Republican Party chairman apologized for Mr. Broden's comment and dismissed it as an "isolated case." Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases.

Nor are they the behaviors of misguided, 22-year-old loners who speak in bizarre syllogisms and associate with organizations like American Renaissance, the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic organization with which alleged Tucson gunman Jared Loughner may have been involved. Again, the above statements were made by Republicans running for Congress. Some raised millions of dollars and received hundreds of thousands of votes. Thankfully, none won.

There was a time when "by any means necessary" rhetoric from the likes of Malcolm X was considered so dangerous, it warranted surveillance by federal agents. Now, when heavily armed white male congressional candidates use the same rhetoric, it is called patriotism.

The fact is that today's violent political imagery is produced almost exclusively by paranoid conservatives. Not all conservatives are crazy and paranoid, but the overwhelming majority of crazy, political paranoiacs are conservative. It doesn't help that their darkest thoughts are stoked daily by people like Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, who weave bizarre narratives about how ACORN, the Black Panthers, George Soros and other imagined demons are conspiring to overtake the U.S. government and undermine American values.

Cindy Sheehan was vilified for peacefully protesting the Iraq war outside George W. Bush's Texas ranch, but she didn't blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City or fly a plane into an IRS office, as deranged conservatives did. Pro-choicers and World Trade Organization opponents sometimes stage unruly public rallies, but they don't set off bombs at the Olympics or shoot people, like the anti-choice activist who murdered Dr. George Tiller did.

"There is a need for some reflection here — what is too far now?" one Republican U.S. senator asked rhetorically, after the shootings. "What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There's been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody's trying to outdo each other."

That GOP senator spoke on condition of anonymity. When politicians at the highest levels of government are afraid to speak openly, that means domestic terrorism — the correct term for what transpired in Tucson — has reached frightening new levels.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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