Friday, February 19, 2010

Terrorist Rhetoric

Since the IRS bombing there's been a question as to what the motivations were.  To what extent they were political or just plain crazy?

I've had a difficult time parsing this one myself.  Obviously he was a bit nuts.  So was the Tiller shooter.  So was the Ft. Hood shooter.  While there does appear to be an obvious political dimension to their acts, they were lone wolves - not connected to a larger orchestrated plot.  They were not members of Al Queda, the IRA, Hamas, etc.

But does terrorism have to be directly connected to a parent organization?  Couldn't individuals, acting with an intent that correlates with the larger stated aims of a political movement, be considered terrorists?  And even if that movement had no organization yet committed to violence?  Timothy Mc Veigh would fit into this category.  He was obviously bred from the rhetoric of a an anti-government movement.  There are still many militias that, while not quite plotting anything specific, are organized around a belief in the illegitimacy of the federal government and the prospects of armed resistance.

The real problem seems to me not to be whether this was an act of terrorism - I think it was - but the degree to which it was inspired by inflammatory rhetoric from the right.  There are certainly many principled right-wing arguments to be made.  This act is in no way an indictment of them.  But it is an indictment of the language used both to give a certain contemporary context for those principles, and suggestions as to how one ought to react to them.  An interesting example of this is Scott Brown's reaction to the event.  I don't see him as having a particularly radical right-wing perspective, but someone who obviously took advantage of the populist right-wing momentum and messaging.  Here he is responding to Cavuto:
..I don't know if it's related but I can just sense not only in my election but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated. They want transparency. They want their elected officials to be accountable and open and talk about the things that are affecting their daily lives. So I'm not sure if there's a connection there. I certainly hope not...
Now, he's obviously not condoning the act.  But he is expressing sympathy for the narrative that the bomber apparently acted from.  He's literally making the man's case for him post-mortem.  He calls for transparency and accountability - reasonable enough claims, but two issues that have been specific right-wing critiques of the Obama administration and inflated so as to trump up the more conspiratorial claims of government illigitimacy. 

I'm not aware of any pundit explicitly calling for violence.  But are many examples of inflammatory rhetoric on the right that all but call for outright armed revolution.  The language that many of the more radical pundits use is rife with evocations of a struggle that would seem to legitimize the use of violent force.  The most popular among them, Glenn Beck, consistently refers to "tyranny", "rising up", "taking back the country", and ultimately evoking again and again the narrative of the founders revolting violently against the British, our present situation being assumedly very similar.

This is a serious allegation, and runs the risk of delegitimizing honest political speech by casting unfair aspersions.  But again, this in no way argues that right-wing critiques are necessarily incorrect.  But the framing, and language used can certainly cross the line, and when it does it would not be unfair to wonder whether it might end up promoting violent behavior.  This happened on the left 40 years ago.  And certainly there was language and framing used during the bush years that crossed a line.  But the difference is not necessarily in the language used - although I would argue that being used on the right today is often times much worse.  It is in the media landscape.  The radical, violent rhetoric is not limited to a radical fringe.  It is coming from leading conservative figures, sometimes even members of congress.

In the Tiller case, the shooter likely believed that Tiller was a murderer.  The rhetoric on the anti-abortion right is that of mass-murder.  If this is true, then armed resistance seems a reasonable response.  The American revolution was a reasonable response to what was the very definition of tyranny.  Were that to be the case today, then violent revolt could be justified.  But of course, to reasonable people, we are experiencing nothing like tyranny.

The language being used - one would hope - is often for dramatic effect, not to accurately describe reality.  When pressed, these pundits will usually back-peddle and explain that they were merely being hyperbolic.  Yet unfortunately for many, listening day in and day out and who may not get their news from any other sources, the narrative becomes the reality.  This is evidenced by interviews with attendees at Sara Palin book signings and Tea party rallies, many of who hold signs parroting a literal interpretation of the "hyperbolic" language.  When one of them finally decides to pick up a gun, bomb, or plane and do something, well, it shouldn't surprise us.

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