On Wednesday morning of this week, a malcontented volunteer from an LGBT community center in Washington, D.C., walked into the lobby of the socially conservative Family Research Council. Along with a handgun and a box of ammunition, he was carrying a backpack that contained 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches — an obvious if peculiar reference to last month’s flap. Having cleared the doors, the Associated Press reported, the gunman shouted “I don’t like your politics!” and then opened fire, hitting a security guard in the arm. Mercifully, before he could do any more damage, he was subdued. The same could be said of the media coverage.
When a lunatic goes on a shooting rampage, we are quick to blame everything and everyone except the shooter himself. Among myriad other things, we blame the law, access to guns, political rhetoric, Hollywood, spending cuts, and talk radio; all while the person who actually fired the gun and planned the crime is relegated to being a helpless agent of whichever external forces seem most to vex the author. So often, more column inches are spent fretting over those with a cameo role than over the star of the show. This is rather grotesque.
By way of example: In 2010, an unhinged ex-felon named Byron Williams put on body armor; loaded a 9 mm handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle into his car and set out to shoot up the Tides Foundation or the ACLU — possibly both. Mercifully, he was arrested before he could do anyone any harm. Discussing the incident in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank pointed the finger not at Williams but at Glenn Beck, of whom Williams was an obsessive fan. “Glenn Beck has a friend in California,” Milbank wrote, before drawing a distinction between the incident not being Beck’s “fault” and Beck’s nonetheless being wholly culpable for “encouraging extremists” that was clever enough to be meaningless.
“It’s not that Beck is directly advocating violence,” Milbank continued, “but he’s giving voice and legitimacy to the violent fringe.” The Daily Kos agreed: “Thanks Dana, for calling out Fox and hopefully preventing any more political hate crimes inspired by the rantings of Glenn Beck.” Quite how either “voice” or “legitimacy” translates to responsibility for physical violence was never explained. Nor was it expanded upon exactly how Glenn Beck’s brand of demagoguery is different from that of anyone else with a microphone and a cult following. But that doesn’t matter: The ultimate aim was to render Beck an accomplice in the act and to shut him up.
Likewise, when Jared Loughner killed six people and injured 14 in Arizona in 2011, Milbank and a host of others were quick to blame Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh for the violence. Most incredibly, Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik explicitly linked the outrage to Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle and condemned their “totally irresponsible” statements. In doing so, he channeled President Clinton, who performed the same political alchemy in the 1990s, explaining to the public in concerned tones that “there can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do.”
Tempting as such first-instinct answers are, the notion that our political discourse is to blame for to these incidents is wrongheaded, highly selective, and depressingly ahistorical. During the presidential election of 1800, a newspaper friendly to John Adams attacked his opponent thus:
If Thomas Jefferson wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, and children writhing on a pike?
If this didn’t “encourage” violence — and it didn’t — then what will? Presumably somebody truly convinced that Jefferson’s election would actually lead to “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest” would want to do something about it? Are we truly to believe that there were no crazy people in 1800 around whom political types should have tiptoed? Or were there no guns? After all, Thomas Jefferson was easily found: As both vice president and president, he used to walk around Philadelphia and Washington without any form of protection. What accounts for his being left alone after such a vile attack on his character?