On June 10, 2009, an elderly man entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, raised a rifle, and opened fire, killing a security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns. Two other guards shot back, wounding the gunman before he could end any more lives.
The killer was soon identified as James Wenneker von Brunn, an 88-year-old neo-Nazi. Von Brunn acted alone, but there was no shortage of voices eager to spread the blame for his crime. The murder was quickly linked, in a free-associative way, to the assassination 10 days earlier of the Kansas abortionist George Tiller. This, we were told, was a "pattern" of "rising right-wing violence."
More imaginative pundits tried to tie the two slayings to a smattering of other crimes, from an April shootout in Pittsburgh that killed three cops to a year-old double murder at a Knoxville Unitarian church. The longest such list, assembled by the liberal blogger Sara Robinson, included nine diverse incidents linked only by the fact that the criminals all hailed from one corner or another of the paranoid right. One of the episodes involved a mentally disturbed anti-Semite who had stalked a former classmate for two years before killing her in May. "This is how terrorism begins," Robinson warned.
Crime wave thus established, the analysts moved on to denounce the unindicted instigators. Bonnie Erbe of U.S. News and World Report pinned the museum guard's death on "promoters of hate," adding, "If yesterday's Holocaust Museum slaying of security guard and national hero Stephen Tyrone Johns is not a clarion call for banning hate speech, I don't know what is." In The New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert wrote that he "can't help feeling" the crimes "were just the beginning and that worse is to come"—thanks in part to "the over-the-top rhetoric of the National Rifle Association." His Times colleague Paul Krugman warned that "right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment." Another Timesman, Frank Rich, announced that "homicide-saturated vituperation is endemic among mini-Limbaughs." After the museum murder, Rich wrote, the talk show host Glenn Beck "rushed onto Fox News to describe the Obama-hating killer as a 'lone gunman nutjob.' Yet in the same show Beck also said von Brunn was a symptom that 'the pot in America is boiling,' as if Beck himself were not the boiling pot cheering the kettle on."
When critics blamed pro-life partisans for the death of George Tiller, there at least was a coherent connection between the pundits' anti-abortion rhetoric and the assassin's target. Say what you will about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, but neither is known for railing against the Holocaust museum. If Beck, to borrow Rich's mixed metaphor, is cheering on a kettle, it isn't the kettle that produced James von Brunn.
We've heard ample warnings about extremist paranoia in the months since Barack Obama became president, and we're sure to hear many more throughout his term. But we've heard almost nothing about the paranoia of the political center. When mainstream commentators treat a small group of unconnected crimes as a grand, malevolent movement, they unwittingly echo the very conspiracy theories they denounce. Both brands of connect-the-dots fantasy reflect the tellers' anxieties much more than any order actually emerging in the world.
When such a story is directed at those who oppose the politicians in power, it has an additional effect. The list of dangerous forces that need to be marginalized inevitably expands to include peaceful, legitimate critics.
The Paranoid Style in Center-Left Politics
This isn't the first time the establishment has been overrun with paranoia about paranoiacs. The classic account of American conspiratology is Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a 1964 survey of political fear from the founding generation through the Cold War. A flawed and uneven essay, Hofstadter's article nonetheless includes several perceptive passages. The most astute one might be this:
"It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through 'front' groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy."
Hofstadter didn't acknowledge it, but his argument applied to much of his audience as well. His article begins with a reference to "extreme right-wingers," a lead that reflected the times. In the early 1960s, America was experiencing a wave of alarm about the radical right. This had been building throughout the Kennedy years and then exploded after the president's assassination, which many people either blamed directly on the far right or attributed to an atmosphere of fear and division fed by right-wing rhetoric. By the time Hofstadter's essay appeared, the "projection of the self" he described was in full effect. Just as anti-communists had mimicked the communists, anti-anti-communists were emulating the red hunters.
In 1961, for example, Walter and Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers wrote a 24-page memo urging then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to join "the struggle against the radical right." The letter, co-authored by the liberal attorney Joseph Rauh, called for Kennedy to deploy the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Communications Commission against the extremists. By "the radical right," the Reuthers meant not just the Birchers and the fundamentalist Christian Crusade but Sen. Barry Goldwater and the libertarian Volker Fund. In Before the Storm, his history of the Goldwater movement, Rick Perlstein describes Group Research Incorporated, an operation funded by the Reuthers' union, as "the mirror image of the political intelligence businesses that monitored left-wingers in the 1950s, identifying fellow-travelling organizations by counting the number of members and officers shared with purported Communist Party fronts. Group Research did the same thing, substituting the John Birch Society for the reds."
Interestingly, the phrases that sounded so dangerous on the lips of the far right weren't always so different from the rhetoric of the Cold War liberals. Robert DePugh, founder of the Minutemen—the anti-communist activists of the '60s, not the anti-immigration activists of today—claimed to have been inspired by JFK's own words: "We need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life." In Before the Storm, Perlstein notes that Kennedy "spoke often in these absolutist, apocalyptic terms."
Philip Jenkins, a scholar at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in both the history of moral panics and the history of the American right, has described this period as the second of three "brown scares" ("brown" as in the brown shirts of fascism). The first came in the late 1930s and early '40s, when aides and allies of Franklin Roosevelt conflated genuine domestic fascists with critics who were far from Nazis. The third came in the mid-1990s, when Timothy McVeigh's mass murder in Oklahoma City set off a barrage of fear-mongering stories about the alleged militia menace in the heartland, helping Bill Clinton push through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The anxieties of the latter period have the most in common with the cocktail of fears emerging in 2009.
The Great Militia Panic