One of the depressing things about hanging out in journalism for a long time, or simply reading the newspapers for a long time, is that nothing changes. Stories repeat themselves. I have made that point before. So even that is a repetition, and depressing.
McVeigh and his helpers blew up the Oklahoma City building, killing more than 150. President Clinton strongly suggested that Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio were responsible. Do you remember his repulsive address at Michigan State University?
An extremist killed Yitzhak Rabin. People delighted in saying that this was all the fault of Likud, all the fault of conservatives, who had created the “atmosphere.” That was the big buzzword: “atmosphere,” alternatively “environment” or “climate.” In fact, now that I think about it, “climate” was the main word. “Atmosphere” and “environment” were close behind. Conservatives tried to point out that it was okay to criticize the Oslo Accords. It didn’t mean that we were murderers. (It meant that we were wary of murderers.)
When Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans with deadly force, many liberals pinned the blame on Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Don’t believe me? Relive those horrible, nutty days in this piece (“All the Uglier: What Katrina whipped up”).
After the Kennedy assassination, John Tower and his family had to evacuate to a safe place. The early word was that right-wingers had killed the president. Tower was associated with Goldwater for President. There were death threats against his family. It transpired, of course, that a left-wing nutjob who had “defected,” briefly, to the Soviet Union was the killer. A liberal was quoted as saying, “Now our grief can be pure.”
When Reagan was shot, there were not many political recriminations, or any. Just a lot of Jodie Foster jokes.
A few months ago, an eco-extremist took hostages at the Discovery Channel building, threatening to kill them and blow up the building. He was shot by the police before he could kill anyone. I don’t recall any comments from the right-wing peanut gallery. There was some snarkiness over the Unabomber. For example, conservatives would put two swatches of text side by side, and say, “Which is the Unabomber’s manifesto and which is Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance?”
If an Islamist blows up or guns down 50 people, shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he does it, you’re not supposed to say that the act has any broad implications at all. It is simply an individual act, end of story. But if a young psychotic in Arizona kills a lot of people, we’re supposed to examine the state of Sarah Palin’s soul.
I don’t say that it ought to be this way, Lord knows. But it always has been, at least for as long as I can remember. And I fear it always will be. The DCCC can put targets on a map. We cannot. Barack Obama can say, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” We cannot. Those are the rules. It’s just the way it is, and we can gripe about it all we want, but . . .
If a Democratic congressman is threatened, there are countless treatises on the sickness of American conservatism. If Eric Cantor is threatened — there’s no news.
One more thing: Events like the Arizona massacre — if the Boston Massacre can be a massacre (five died), the Arizona shooting qualifies — can have serious political effects. I think the Oklahoma City bombing did. And I remember something from college days — from graduate school, actually. A professor of mine, the late political scientist Nelson Polsby, was asked how the Reagan program got passed in 1981. He lifted his hand and made a shooting motion: the assassination attempt. It garnered sympathy for the president, Polsby was saying. I didn’t like that very much. But there was still a point.