(cross-posted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen)
With rifle-toting protesters showing up at various rallies and town halls around the country, there’s been a lot of worry – mostly on part of liberals – that these demonstrations could erupt into serious violence. I happen to think that there is real cause for worry, especially considering the borderline eliminationist rhetoric coming out of the far-right, as well as the fact that members of the far-right have by and large been responsible for a considerable amount of political violence over the past twenty years. Megan McArdle, however, is unconvinced that we’ll see any violence from these gun-toting protesters:
Numerous people claim to believe that this makes it likely, even certain, that someone will shoot at the president. This is very silly, because the president is not anywhere most of the gun-toting protesters, who have showed up at all sorts of events. It is, I suppose, more plausible to believe that they might take a shot at someone else. But not very plausible: the rate of crime associated with legal gun possession or carrying seems to be very low. Guns, it turn out, do not turn ordinary people into murderers. They make murderers more effective. [...]
I suspect that, like the notion that Obama is not a US citizen, or that George Bush either planned the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen, this is for most people what Julian Sanchez calls a symbolic belief. They don’t really believe that these people are thugs intent on murder–not in the sense that they have, with careful thought, arrived at a conclusion that they are willing to defend vigorously. But it is pleasurable to tell yourself you believe terrible things about your enemies, and so you don’t examine the thought until someone says, “Well, how about $500 on it, then?” and you think about how much it would hurt to lose $500 on, and realize that you don’t actually have any reason to believe it’s all that likely.
Insofar that liberals are spooked by the presence of firearms at town halls or events attended by the president, it’s not because we believe that firearms possess some magical ability to turn Mild-Mannered Citizen into Bloodthirsty Domestic Terrorist. Indeed, the suggestion (or implication, really) is more than a little dishonest; very few – if any – liberals have argued that the mere presence of a firearm is enough to spark political violence.
No, liberals are worried about the potential for violence because the ingredients seem to be there. Last year’s election revealed the extent to which the conservative base is filled with angry, anxious and scared people desperate for some explanation as to why their lives are falling apart. And since Obama’s inauguration, men like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have successfully convinced a large swath of those folks that the Democrats deserve the lions share of the blame, not only for making their lives miserable, but for electing a socialist, communist, Nazi, America-hating liberal who wants nothing more than to take what’s rightfully theirs (read: America) and redistribute it to minorities, gays and illegal immigrants.
Now, for the vast majority of these people, this is almost certainly a symbolic belief. If push came to shove – would admit that Obama probably isn’t the second coming of Joseph Mengele, and isn’t trying to off grandma in a desperate attempt to save money. For them, this really is just something pleasurable to tell themselves about their enemies, and not something to actually act on. For a very small minority however, these fears are completely – and terrifyingly – real. In a very real sense, they are cloistered and isolated from reality. They sincerely believe that Barack Obama has usurped the presidency, and that the United States is well on the road to a totalitarian dictatorship. What’s more, their fears are bolstered by a steady stream of misinformation and fear-mongering, some of it from fringe talk-radio hosts, and some of it from prominent Republican politicians.
Of course, most of these people won’t act on their fears. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there are a few folks who will arm themselves, and will try to take matters into their own hands. In fact, it’s not a stretch because it has already happened. Since Obama was elected, at least a dozen people have been killed or wounded by far-right extremists, and during the Clinton years, the country experienced one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in its history, carried out by a paranoid, racist far-right extremist.
That’s not to say that every gun-toting protester is a potential Timothy McVeigh, but to say these fears are not unfounded. It would be one thing if liberals were relying on conjecture and hypotheticals to argue that violence is a real possibility. If right-wing domestic terrorism were nonexistent – or at least extremely uncommon – then I would agree that liberals are either A) being very paranoid or B) don’t actually believe that their fellow citizens would hurt or kill someone over a political disagreement. But we know that that’s not the case. We know that there has been an uptick in far-right activity, we know that there has been an uptick in far-right violence, and we know that liberals and minorities are – more often than not – the stated targets of far-right violence. At the risk of sounding slightly alarmist, I think that we are fooling ourselves by not at least acknowledging the possibility that something truly terrible could happen.