When you combine serious mental illness, depression, horrible life circumstances, and social isolation with some sort of ideology or rhetoric that blames a group of people for the world's problems (liberals, Jews, Democrats, whatever), you get situations where bad stuff can happen. There is an interesting question, through, whether certain crazed lone gunmen wouldn't just kill randomly anyway. I mean, is it worse for a violent maniac to shoot down a politician or judge or a bunch of people at a political meeting than a group of school children or a group of shoppers, or a group of sports fans? If people didn't have a certain right-wing paranoid narrative to focus their hatred toward police or liberals or federal agencies or politicians, wouldn't they just find some other group to focus their hatred and fear? Perhaps there would be mass shootings on Wall Street, or in banks, or in customer service departments of cable companies or phone companies, instead of attacks on Democrats or abortion doctors or whatever.
But when I think of shooting rampages or violent threats against political figures, I can't think of any in the past 40-50 years that were motivated by Communist or Socialist ideologies, unless possibly the Assassination of JFK had some connection to Marxism. There have been many threats against liberals and Democrats, but do conservatives and Republicans get the same degree of threats and murder attempts? In most of the shooting sprees, I think untreated mental illness plays a role, and the shooters are not politically motivated (think of Charles Whitman, the University of Texas shooter, who was suffering from a brain tumor, or John Hinckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan's would-be killer). Here are some reminders of the sort of attacks Democrats and liberals have experienced in recent years:
On December 10th of 2010, Charles Turner Habermann, of Palm Springs California, called Democrat James McDermott and threatened to kill him. Mr. Habermann threatened to assault and murder a United States official, with the intent to impede, intimidate, and interfere with the official’s performance of official duties (he tried to persuade McDermott to vote in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy). It’s Case MJ11-16. Read the Complaint of Violation, and see how Habermann said, “He [McDermott] advocates stealing people’s money to give it to losers.”
Last April, Charles Alan Wilson made a threat against Patty Murray, another Democrat of Washington State. He opposed the health care bill, and didn’t like the fact that Patty Murray had voted in favor of it.
John Troy Davis, A Colorado man who claimed to be suffering from schizophrenia, also threatened a Democrat, Senator Michael Bennet. Mr. Davis was having difficulties getting his Social Security, and he warned Bennet’s home office staff that he was “going to come down there and shoot you all.”
In July of 2008, Jim Adkisson killed two people in a Unitarian Church. He wanted to kill liberals, and every Democrat in the Senate and House.
In April of 2009, Richard Poplawski shot and killed three police officers. Mr. Poplawski was fearful that the Obama administration was going to ban guns.
In July of 2010, Byron Williams was on his way to kill people at a liberal non-profit in San Francisco when he became involved in a gun battle with police.
In late May of 2009 Scott Roeder assassinated Dr. George Tiller. Mr. Roeder had been a member of the Freemen group.
Would it be possible to think of a similar list of conservative and Republicans who have been threatened or attacked? If not, why not?
The first comment on this post was an excellent observation from an anonymous source, who pointed out that there were indeed many threats made against prominent conservatives. I followed up on some advice from the comment, and found some good links to share here.
Here is one about threats made against President Bush. I'd make a distinction between people who carried signs saying "kill Bush" (awful and illegal and unethical) and those who wanted to see Bush put on trial, found guilty, and executed (awful and legal, and of debatable ethical quality). I personally would find it satisfying to see Bush put on trial, and if he is guilty of crimes, which I suspect he is, I'd like to see him forced to make restitution or receive punishment for it, although I'm open to the possibility that he is innocent, and I certainly don't think putting him or his worst cabinet officials and administration functionaries on trial should be a priority. But at any rate, as the page I've linked to shows, there was very hateful and angry and violent imagery at some anti-Bush rallies, and I think it's clearly in the same category of troublesome rhetoric as what we see aimed at Obama and his administration.
And here are other stories about conservatives being threatened: Ann Coulter; Freedomworks and the Tea Party; and other famous conservatives. Compare those to the cases I've cited and linked to above, or similar threats.
And yet, I see a difference as well. It seems to me that some of the voices using the violent rhetoric and exhibiting hateful paranoia against liberals and the president now (and during the Clinton administration) are relatively famous mainstream people. And while it's now clear people on the left can be just as vicious and divisive, it just seems to me that there aren't so many public figures on the left that are this angry or hostile. I guess two of the harshest anti-conservatives I know of on the left are people like Michael Parenti, Ted Rall, and Jim Hightower, and comparing them to their conservative equivalents (perhaps Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, or Sean Hannity), it just seems to me that the rhetoric from the mainstream far right conservatives is harsher than the rhetoric from mainstream far left liberals. When it comes to name-calling or threats from the mainstream left, I think of Al Franken and his mildly amusing book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," but it was not the sort of book that claimed Limbaugh was an enemy of America, at least I don't remember it being so.
And it's clear that there have been death threats against people on the right, and disgraceful violent rhetoric against some people on the right. But, does the left have anyone like Jim Adkisson, who really did kill a bunch of Unitarians because they were liberals, and really did take some of his inspiration from right-wing radio personalities and mainstream far-right authors? Or is there anyone on the left who acted beyond theats, and really shot at people or attempted to kill people, like Byron Williams? The closest thing I can think of is Washington Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad, who was apparently somewhat motivated by class and race (against European-Americans and middle-class or wealthy persons).
I'm not sure I have a point here with this post. I'm just asking some questions, and trying to see if there is a fair cause to distinguish between political sides in assigning blame for the debasement of rhetoric and debate. It is clear there are crazy people on the far left who will threaten violence, just as there are on the far right. Maybe there is a difference in degrees or frequency or style of threats and actions by these partisan extremists and hateful persons.
This past year I listened to the debates between Lincoln and Douglas (acted by Richard Dreyfus (as Stephen Douglas) and David Straithairn (as Lincoln). The debates were heated, and there were personal attacks, but although the debates were aggressive and full of conflict, I thought the tone and style was far more agreeable, and less demagogic than what I've heard or seen in modern media. I wish partisan debates today were as full as substance and eloquence and courtesy as these debates were over 150 years ago.
Update on April 1, 2011: The left now has a person crazed by her anger, who threatened the lives of Republicans. This is Katherine Windels of Wisconsin.