The title is of course an exaggeration. There is little doubt that 88 year old James W. von Brunn did not emerge from the womb sufficiently full of hate that he would one day attempt to kill visitors of the Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum. Still, a good portion of this man’s life has been spent rabidly and irrationally hating others. In the early 80’s he went to prison for trying to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve. He emerged from prison blaming blacks and Jews for his troubles. Today he decided to take action again and before he could be stopped, he had indeed killed a black man, a guard whose presence at that museum may have saved several lives.
In the past two weeks, we have seen three high profile murders with political underpinnings. Private William Long was murdered by an American convert to Islam. Doctor George Tiller was murdered by a pro-life extremist and now this attack in Washington. What chills me is not so much the expressions of rage and frustration evidenced by these men, it is the fuel that sets them off. What chills me is the environment of intolerance, hatred and outright wackjob rhetoric that serves as the backdrop for these crimes.
Just a few days ago, I wrote in the comments section of this blog my growing concern over the insane speech that I’ve seen in the blogosphere. One of my readers regularly e-mails me unsolicited items concerning nutty conspiracy theories. These notes speak of Obama’s lack of legal authority because he is not a citizen of the United States (by the way, von Brunn was a “birth certificate skeptic”). They speak of impending violence. One of the latest spoke of the World Health Organization upgrading swine flu to pandemic level six which would mandate “global martial law” and give the US government authority to enter your home without warrant. These notes are not sent to me by a skeptic. They are sent to me by a believer.
A couple of months ago I encountered the blog of a man who had recently lost his family to divorce and then his job. He was about to be put out on the street. The blog was full of seething rage and thinly veiled threats of violence against an entire host of perceived enemies from the government to the church. I chose to make some comments on that blog that were predictably greeted with contempt. After the shooting today in Washington, I now wonder if I shouldn’t have called the blog to the attention of law enforcement.
The Internet has given us a view into people’s souls, some of them very disturbed souls. von Brunn had written enough hate speech on his blog to make today’s act completely predictable. But how do we discern between a person posing, a person just venting, and a person who is truly dangerous? What role do we play in these people’s lives by the words we write in our blogs and our online comments? What role do we play in their lives by reading their vitriolic and usually irrational rants and then ignoring them? We write them off as crackpots. When they take action, is there blood on our hands?
Giving up our free speech is too great a price to pay on the offhand chance that if everybody writes “nice” things, no one will ever be harmed. Violence existed before the advent of the blogosphere and the blogosphere cannot be blamed entirely for the current climate. Yet isn’t it worth our examining what role we play? From the moment someone yelled “kill him” at a John McCain rally (referring to Barack Obama), I knew we were entering the age of the powder keg. Social analysts much smarter than I have pointed out there is a confluence of forces at work right now in this country that can spell danger.
- People who took their comfort for granted being displaced by a broken economy
- An increase in the sheer numbers of “minority” folks, making those in the “majority” feel disenfranchised
- A small but vocal portion of society that associates leadership with male Caucasians and now finds themselves led by a black US president
- Minority groups who identify for whatever reason with terrorist factions abroad
These are just some of the forces at play. I’ve been accused of being an alarmist. Yet the tea party demonstrations earlier this year, which I dismissed as silly, carried an undercurrent of social unrest. These three recent murders represent a microcosm of society losing control of its inhibitions. How many more incidences will it take before the recently released Homeland Security report is taken seriously rather than met with demands of apology from Janet Napolitano?
I submit that today’s crime and the two crimes that recently preceded it were fueled by words. Words matter. The lack of civility in our public dialogue and the logical abyss into which much of our rhetoric has fallen, only serves as a predictor for subsequent violence and irrational behavior. Unless we want a return to 1968, we must change course. We can only do it by examining our own beliefs and strongly challenging the beliefs of those who might do this country harm. We cannot censor the “nutjobs” but we must shine a bright light on them and declare them for what they are. Complacency at this time in our history is equivalent to complicity in the horrors that may follow.