Byron Williams is the fellow who got into a shootout with some cops in July while en route to kill some of the grantmakers at the Tides Foundation. No one died, and Williams now resides behind bars. He's a favorite subject for people who worry that talk radio, the Internet, and Fox News are driving conservatives to violence, because he is the first violent kook since Scott Roeder killed the abortion doctor George Tiller over a year ago for whom you can credibly claim that the criminal chose his target with the right-wing media's rhetoric in mind. (More often, you see strained attempts to link Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, or some other host to a shootout at a place the figure never denounced, such as the D.C. Holocaust Museum.) The liberal website Media Matters has just put up a profile of Williams by Pacifica's John Hamilton. It stresses the influence of Glenn Beck, David Horowitz, Alex Jones, and Michael Savage both on Williams' worldview in general and on his specific beef with the Tides Foundation, which Williams believed was part of a grand conspiracy in which the BP oil spill was a deliberate act of sabotage masterminded by George Soros.
Meanwhile, examiner.com (not to be confused with the conservative Examiner newspapers) has published its own interview with Williams. It presents a rather different scenario, in which the shooter "felt forced to act out in violence because Beck and others in the right wing media were not fighting hard enough against organizations like the left-leaning Tides Foundation." In other words, it stresses the differences between Williams' worldview and Beck's rather than the similarities. The profile, written by Ed Walsh, also stresses that Williams was already interested in the Tides theory before Beck started discussing it. "I already had all that information that he used on one or two of his programs," Williams says. "I already knew all of that stuff. And to me it was more of a confirmation of what I already knew." Besides Beck, Williams' favorite sources of information include a familiar litany of fringe writers and websites, including Jones, David Icke, the Jeremiah Project, and AboveTopSecret.com.
But it's Hamilton, not Walsh, who alludes to what may be the most important information about Williams' background: "an extensive criminal career marked by convictions for assault, property destruction, hit and run, and drunken driving." At the time of the shootout, the would-be killer was on parole for bank robbery. Hamilton quotes Williams' mother: "This economy, the way that it is, if people are going to hire somebody, they probably won't hire an ex-felon. If it was boom times, things would have been different." It's not clear from these stories when Williams was radicalized or how it happened. But it's clear that he was already alienated, violent, and in a situation where he didn't have much to lose.
I think it's fair to criticize Beck and the others for espousing a theory that isn't accurate. But it's Williams who's responsible for the idea that the subjects of the theory should be slain. Beck didn't put that notion in his head -- he's very explicit about urging nonviolence -- and I'm not even sure you can make the more limited claim that these conspiracy theorists served as the spark that set an already volatile man off. Responsibility belongs where it always belongs: with the criminal. Williams is the one who decided to set out to San Francisco to kill some liberals, the same way he decided years earlier to set out to rob a bank.
Bonus reading: "The Paranoid Center," "On Rhetoric, Violence, and Militias," "The Children of George Metesky," "The Myth of the Menacing Militias," "The Green Gunman." And maybe this golden oldie too.