At first glance, the news of an arrest by the FBI of a man who made threatening phone calls last month to his Democratic congressman seems easier to blame on the sort of political rhetoric that's still alleged by many to have motivated the Tucson assassin of last Saturday. This person allegedly left messages on Rep. McDermott's answering machine informing him that he and the President would have been "shot in the head" by the Founding Fathers, had they all shared any moment in time, and that the caller himself would be happy to kill the representative and his family if McDermott conspired to steal his money, so to speak, by opposing the extension of the current relatively low tax rates. The suspect thus shows two characteristics of the far right: taxophobia, most obviously, and the assumption that current politicians, Democrats especially, have so far departed from the principles of the Founders that those elders would sanction violence against them.
The suspect is at the least guilty of a guileless and perhaps admirable honesty, having facilitated his arrest by giving his real name and phone number while leaving his threatening messages. While I still believe in the virtue of anonymity in political discourse as a shield against ad hominem argument, I suppose I have to give credit to people who are willing to stand fully behind their opinions -- particularly those that will get them in trouble. His honesty or guilelessness is probably all that's creditable about this fellow. He clearly is what many people assumed and still want the Tucson amoklaufer to be, minus the actual violence. In that case, who if anyone is to blame for his incriminating outbursts? The usual suspects will come to the usual minds, but an impulse to name names or denounce specific devils obscures the real issue.
Accusers may dispute amongst themselves the relative influence of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck on any violent rightist, but all seem to agree on the implicit premise that a certain set of opinions and beliefs encourage political violence. In crudest terms, some liberals seem willing to accept that any belief in limited government increases the likelihood that the believer might shoot a politician someday, just as some seem to think that any reduction of government spending will cause someone to die. A more nuanced suspicion focuses on those who equate expanding government with "tyranny." In this case, anyone who warns against tyranny is suspect on the assumption that the perceived imminence of tyranny would provoke them to drastic, violent action. Even the most suspicious among liberals would concede that not every person who opposes "big government" or sees it as incipient tyranny is a likely assassin or insurgent. The real question becomes whether enough believers have violent potential to make the opinions themselves suspect and subject to surveillance. But once you concede that not every believer is a menace you have to ask whether political opinions or more personal factors make the difference. If someone kills or even threatens a politician, to what extent is the act political, and to what extent is it insane or merely stupid? I don't raise the question to offer an easy answer. Republicans now cry that personal factors are primary if not exclusive; I doubt any of them will defend the man arrested in Washington yesterday. Instead they will probably say that he's only insane or stupid -- though they've proven themselves less likely to dismiss Muslim terrorists that way. Think of our debates on the root causes of terrorism and you'll realize that the current debates on causation and influence aren't as easily dismissed as Republicans would like, yet aren't as cut and dried as some Democrats would want. Even though partisanship has compromised the objectivity of the discussion, cooler minds probably ought to keep the conversation going.