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Jun. 10 2009 - 5:02 pm | 10 views | 2 recommendations | 20 comments

Time to Apologize to Janet Napolitano?

killer1Is it time yet for Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and the rest of the hysterical right-wing media to apologize to Janet Napolitano for going batshit over her report about a possible spike in right-wing violence at home? Hmmm… It just might be.

First, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down at his church by an anti-abortion fanatic.

Then, an unemployed truck driver shot up a church because he hated liberals and gays.*

And now a white supremacist has shot up the Holocaust Museum and killed the security guard there.

Okay, I’m doing a bit of the media “three makes a trend” BS here. But it’s also not crazy to see a trend emerging. Yes, folks on the Left are just as capable of violence (especially when we’re talking about Communist totalitarian societies), and “green” terrorism is also on the rise. But the largest terrorist attack on American soil prior to 9/11 was Oklahoma City, and we know who perpetrated that. And we also know when they perpetrated that — after the election of the last Marxist, treasonous, threat to America’s constitutional order… Bill Clinton.

And, so, I ask: Are we at the beginning of a wave of right-wing violence?

There are two factors here, at least, that point in that direction:

1) The right wing feels disempowered — when you think your grievances can never be redressed within the political process, you’re more likely to turn to violence.


2) Violence like this can spread in a way similar to an epidemic.

The first point I don’t think requires much explanation. The second point, though, is important and needs some elaboration.

As so often, Malcolm Gladwell has written lucidly on this. In The Tipping Point, he wrote about the epidemic of suicides that hit Micronesia in the 1980s. In an expanded edition of the book in 2002, he added some material on the Columbine school shooting, which can be found here. Basically, in the 22 months after Columbine — and in the wake of the media circus that followed — there were 19 incidents of school violence patterned after the Columbine shooters (10 of them were foiled, thankfully, before anyone got hurt).

This table, from U.S. News & World Report shows school shootings in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s:

Aug. 12, 1986: Five people are shot and one killed by a student at New York Technical College in Brooklyn.

Nov. 26, 1985: A high school student in Washington State dies after shooting herself the previous day. Police say the female student earlier shot and killed two 14-year-old boys, one of them her former boyfriend.

Oct. 23, 1985: The dean of Bates College in Maine is shot in the back by a sniper while standing in his kitchen in a house just off campus. The dean survives the shooting, and the captain of the school’s swim team is arrested in connection with the incident.

Feb. 22, 1978: After being taunted for his beliefs, a 15-year-old self-proclaimed Nazi, kills one student and wounds a second with a Luger-style pistol in Lansing, Mich.

Dec. 30, 1974: In Olean, N.Y., Anthony Barbaro, a 17-year-old Regents scholar armed with a rifle and shotgun, kills three adults and wounds 11 others at his high school, which was closed for the Christmas holiday. Barbaro was reportedly a loner who kept a diary describing several “battle plans” for his attack on the school.

May 4, 1970: Four students are killed and nine wounded when National Guard soldiers attempt to control an antiwar demonstration at Ohio’s Kent State University.

Jan. 17, 1969: Two students are shot and killed at the University of California-Los Angeles during a student meeting.

Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Whitman climbs atop the observation deck at the University of Texas-Austin, killing 16 people and wounding 31 during a 96-minute rampage.

That’s eight shootings in three decades (including one listed here, from 1985, that doesn’t really fit under what we call a school shooting). And then there are 15, just in the 1990s. This chart from Info Please shows how many more we’ve had in the 2000s.

Clearly, school shootings and the media coverage that follows them have created a cycle that has lead to more school shootings.

And so now, with the Right thoroughly out of power, and with the economy in the tank, we’re seeing a group of dispossessed white men becoming “martyrs” to their various causes. And at home, other dispossessed white men — some crazier than others — are watching these people become national celebrities and extremist folk heroes. And a voice in their brain is saying: I could do that, too.

It’s not to say there definitely will be more incidents. But if I were a betting man I wouldn’t bet against it. And if I were looking for a contributing factor to the next killing, I’d look to the fact that, as with the Virginia Tech killer and the recent school shooter in Germany, the media can’t help doing exactly what they’re not supposed to do: making the killer an antihero, making the body count the headline, showing the killer’s face over and over, etc. (Even in this post, by way of criticizing Drudge, I’ve got the killer’s picture.)

Is there a way to nip this sort of thing in the bud? Well, monitoring potential domestic terrorists is one important thing to do, before the next Ryder truck blows up. As for individual shooters like this — well, some people have a lot more faith in gun control than me. I’d say a certain number of incidents like this are inevitable. But they’re more likely when a paranoid political culture thrives on talk radio, hate Web sites, etc. That doesn’t mean those First Amendment protected activities should be shut down. But it’s the price of living in a free society.

* CORRECTION [6/10/09, 10:00 p.m.]: Sorry, this incident took place last summer, 2008. Still awful and motivated by politically tinged craziness, but not part of this current outbreak.

UPDATE [6/10/09, 11:24 p.m.]: If you really want to make it three, this guy killed three cops in April — at least partly because he thought the Obama administration was coming for his guns.


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  1. collapse expand

    Ryan, I’d been thinking about that extremism report since the abortion shooting. And I think there was a guy in Pittsburgh who killed a few cops, if I’m not mistaken, who seemed to be acting on political(if insane) motives.

  2. collapse expand

    “Time to Apologize to Janet Napolitano?”

    Ya think?

    Frankly none of this is surprise to me, I wrote a piece on my own blog a while ago back that election of Obama was going to start a war from the right. The only surprise is how quickly this has happened, Dr. Tiller, now this, this won’t be the end of the violence.

  3. collapse expand

    I interviewed documentarian Alexandra Pelosi (happens to be daugher of Nancy Pelosi — how Shakespearian is that in the wrong hands?) who makes films about the right, not the extreme gun-toting right, all the right, and how they are feeling and how centrists and the left are treating them/ignoring them. She has been saying, without the dire “avoid them at your peril” tone, that centrists and the left are simply not seeing how upset they are — the rational ones, the ones who don’t pick up a gun and shoot. Now we’ve got the usual Hollywood-style reasons for paying attention. We must pay attention, and not only because their extremists are becoming so noticably deadly.

  4. collapse expand

    Brian, Here’s some of what A. Pelosi said about “Friends with God” in my interview with her, and the link to huff for the complete January 2009 post under it:

    Alexandra Pelosi: … I was making a film at the time called Friends with God, and [Ted Haggard] was head of the National Association of Evangelicals. I wanted to follow evangelicals at the ballot box, and make a film so that people who watch HBO would understand them.

    Third Screen: How did you feel about [Ted Haggard] when you followed him for Friends with God?

    Alexandra Pelosi: On the earlier film, I found he was different from the rest. He seemed more real. He was funny and fun, I instantly took to him. As a journalist and filmmaker, you stick with people who give you access. He took me on his book tour. He took me on his Promise Keepers tour. My husband and I went camping with his family at Pike’s Peak. In a weird way, I was angry at Ted after it happened. Bill O’Reilly mocked me about making conservatives look bad in that film, but in fact it was completed before Haggard’s fall. Ironically, I’m getting flack for being too complimentary about him in this new one. But that isn’t what the films are about. A lot of good people in this country are devastated. Devastated about ministers who fail them. Devastated that politicians like John McCain lost the election. They work hard for their views, they worked door to door during the election. And now they fear the future. We need to understand them and the full array of their points of view. Ted was my tour guide to that world. When he fell, I was pretty angry with him, because it undermined the credibility of my films.


  5. collapse expand

    I agree completely, B, and thanks. I sent the link referencing her to Alexandra, maybe she’ll weigh in.

  6. collapse expand

    I just got this in my inbox from newsmax.com:

    “Obama Breeds Climate of Hate Against Jews

    By Rabbi Dr. Morton H. Pomerantz

    Our new president did not tell a virulent anti-Semite to travel to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to kill Jews, but he is most certainly creating a climate of hate against us.

    It is no coincidence that we are witnessing this level of hatred toward Jews as President Barack Obama positions America against the Jewish state.

    Just days ago Obama traveled to Cairo, Egypt. It was his second trip in a short time to visit Muslim countries. He sent a clear message by not visiting Israel.

    But this was code.

    In Cairo, Obama said things that pose a grave danger to Jews in Israel, in America and everywhere….”

    This is the type of double speak that would Orwell proud!

  7. collapse expand

    Janet Napolitano may not be the most eloquent speaker (her comment about vets with re: to the extremism report was a major gaffe), but her warnings of a potential rise in right-wing extremism is warranted. Mark Potok and the crew over at Intelligence Report (http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/intrep.jsp) have been monitoring and reporting on these very same groups for years.

    But of course Limbaugh, Drudge, and party-line cronies like Sean Hannity will never apologize for their words. They exist for the sole purpose of fanning the flames of discontent. Listen to Hannity’s radio show some afternoon (if you can stomach it). I’m convinced at least 1/3 of his callers are cleaning their guns and watching ‘First Blood’ when they call in.

  8. collapse expand

    Wow, I must have missed the part of the DHS report that warned about 89 year old anti-Semitic WWII vets who also hate Christians and conservatives. I didn’t know that the anti-Conservative right was so big. I guess Republicans really are a big tent party, huh?

    Yep, absolutely, this guy was definitely the kind of nut that Ms. Napolitano was warning us about.

  9. collapse expand


    Janet Napolitano is doing her job and she doesn’t strike me as the type of person that needs an apology. I have to admit that she has exceeded my expectations. Homeland Security is now the largest governmental agency from what I have read. It was created under the Bush Administration. Conservatives tend to believe in small government, so, it was surprising that this mammoth department was created under Bush. Her internal report seems to have hit the mark, but time will tell.

    Three does show the makings of a trend, but it may not be that simple. You bring up two factors which may be key. The first one: “1) The right wing feels disempowered — when you think your grievances can never be redressed within the political process, you’re more likely to turn to violence.” Well, being a Democrat, I sat through eight years of feeling that way, but never felt violent…I just knew the pendulum had swung too far to the right and it would correct itself. Most, not all, of the problems we face today were the making of the right. They should keep that in mind as they lash out on the airways etc. Their way was not working for this country. It is way too early to tell if President Obama will deliver on the great promise he showed before taking office.

    Your second factor: “2) Violence like this can spread in a way similar to an epidemic.” If school shootings didn’t prove that, I don’t know what else to say. I believe the media was partially to blame because of their non-stop coverage of these events. Yes, we need to be informed. Do we need to be bombarded with these events in such minute detail?

    I know at first glance it doesn’t seem related, but it is just to point out the power of the media. Look at all the coverage David Letterman’s remarks have garnered. Does it not seem disproportionate since he is a comedian? I’ve never seen such an attack on a comedian doing his job. It is only because it involved Sarah Palin. If it was Tyra Banks, we would have never heard a word about it. The media is sometimes irresponsible in their coverage of events as they happen.

    I prefer to watch the local news and then ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson. Except on rare occasions, even the biggest story only gets about three minutes of coverage, which for me, is quite enough. I cannot sit mindlessly watching…say…CNN’s coverage of a single event.

    I don’t mean to minimize recent events by equating it with the hoopla over David Letterman and Sarah Palin, I just think people may need to take on the responsibility of enough is enough themselves. The media will and has kept stories alive far too long without considering the kind of fallout that comes from such coverage. It is, unfortunately, our appetite that feeds this kind of coverage.


    • collapse expand

      “Conservatives tend to believe in small government…”

      Experience forces me to disagree. Libertarians – in the modern, American context and in the traditional, decentralized socialist context libertarianism once enjoyed – believe in no to minimal centralized government (no libertarian I’ve ever met failed to believe in, say, “self-government”).

      Conservatives, on the other hand, insofar as I can tell have never abandoned the Teddy Roosevelt “progressive” impulse to centrally plan both the American and world economy through a large regulatory apparatus and the military might which requires large government to back it up. They would, however, prefer that the language used to justify this behemoth state appropriate the language of the libertarian. It’s all so fantastically Orwellian.

      I think that the reasons for this are twofold: to marginalize genuine small-government folk and to give progressive venues all the ammunition they need to attack genuine limited government folk by assigning them the blame for the excesses of the large-government conservatives.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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