Fighting Words

Does reading this make you a terrorist?

"Most greens can still consider themselves nonviolent for one reason: Their victims don't fight back. So far no one has taken up arms to defend his logging equipment against Earth First! sabotage or his factory against EPA closure....The 'debased human protoplasm' that [environmentalist writer Stephanie] Mills holds in contempt...will not go down non-violently....And many ordinary human beings will not give up the right to own land without a fight, complete with guns."

I wrote that in April 1990. In April 1995, it would have gotten me declared an enemy of the state, an inciter of violence, and for all intents and purposes the murderer of babies.

Which, in the eyes of E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Bill Clinton of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I apparently am. After all, in REASON's May issue, which subscribers received in early April, I suggested that Americans are rightly afraid of government power, and I criticized Washingtonians for being too cool to use the word tyranny in polite conversation.

Back then, it was gauche to point out that Washington rules by force--that lawmakers' symbolic gestures, from drug laws to wetlands regulations to the Americans with Disabilities Act, are enforced by government agents backed by guns. It was gauche to suggest that many government actions are unjust. It was gauche to tell Washington that the rage of the powerless was building in the land.

Now it's not just gauche, it's criminal. It makes you a terrorist, guilty by association.

"Underlying fears that the United States government is a tyranny is an increasingly popular rhetorical style that economist Herbert Stein rightly criticized...as 'demagogic,'" writes Dionne in a post-Oklahoma City column.

"Only a handful of unfeeling fanatics take the rhetorical excesses of politics to deadly extremes," he continues. "But the fact that they have done so--and the fact that the potentially violent militias are growing--ought to lead to some soul-searching in the mainstream. After the suffering in Oklahoma City, the country needs an extended period in which political rhetoric is toned down, words are more carefully weighed and, as the president said yesterday, 'the purveyors of hate and division' and 'the promoters of paranoia' are resisted and condemned."

As the editor of a magazine devoted not only to liberty but to rational discourse, I'm happy to endorse weighing one's words carefully. But responsible rhetoric makes distinctions, and E. J. Dionne does not.

He jumps from mad bombers to "potentially violent" militia members to gun-control opponents to anyone who uses strong language to condemn tyrannical acts of the U.S. government. He lumps these disparate groups together with few distinctions and absolutely no attempt to understand the arguments or philosophy of his political opponents. E. J. Dionne is a purveyor of hate and division, a promoter of paranoia. And he is not alone.

In the column next to Dionne's, Richard Cohen writes in favor of disarming Americans in lieu of sacrificing other civil liberties to thwart terrorism: "Consider that the man linked to the bombing is also 'linked'--that most elastic of journalistic terms--to paramilitary groups that, in turn, are linked to one another. The pillar of their paranoia is the Second Amendment....These are stupid people, but because they are armed they are dangerous." Using "links," Cohen can go from Timothy McVeigh to militias to Republicans who want to repeal the assault weapon ban. All in 15 column inches.

A Los Angeles Times news report by Janet Hook is direct: "Gingrich has kept his distance from the violent extremes of the right....But Gingrich has continued to champion the same causes as these extremist groups: criticism of the Waco siege, opposition to gun control and general anti-government themes."

Congress shouldn't investigate Waco, says a May 9 Times editorial, because "given how large Waco looms in the mind of a violent fringe, this is not the time to pour salt into that wound." The Times rightly did not apply a similar standard of guilt by association to rioters and critics of the Rodney King beating.

Or consider The New Republic's Robert Wright. In the same column in which he exhorts public figures to avoid appealing to the worst in human nature and saying untrue things, he writes that "McVeigh and his buddies are anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-gun-control, anti-U.N." He thereby appeals to the worst in New Republic liberals by demonstrating that blowing up a building full of people is not very different from denouncing regulation. He then glibly refers to "the militia milieu that spawned McVeigh," although the McVeigh-militia connection appears to be this year's Big Lie.

It gets worse. Buried in a Washington Post article on "extremism" and the Internet is the sentence: "Jack Rickard, the editor and publisher of Boardwatch Magazine, said that out of about 65,000 on-line bulletin boards nationwide, he has heard of about 300 for libertarian and 'paranoid' groups." Our Washington editor, Rick Henderson, faxed me the article with the greeting: "Good morning, fellow paranoid/extremist." With all those "links" out there, how can we expect a responsible newspaper to distinguish between, say, Nobel Prize-winning economists and people who think the government has put microchips in their buttocks? After all, they're all suspicious of runaway government power.

And perhaps there is no difference between free market economists and conspiracy-obsessed terrorists. In a leap worthy of Evel Knievel, "Republican" commentator Kevin Phillips actually manages to jump from Oklahoma City to the flat tax. "The 'wacko' factor is intensifying," he writes in the Los Angeles Times. Tim McVeigh. Dick Armey. No difference.

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