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.

If Phillips's rhetoric is the weirdest, it is not the worst. Phillips has no power and, these days, little influence. The same cannot be said for Bill Clinton.

This is what the president of the United States said in a widely praised speech at Michigan State's graduation: "I would like to say something to the paramilitary groups and to others who believe the greatest threat to America comes not from terrorists from within our country or beyond our borders, but from our own government….I am well aware that most of you have never violated the law of the land. I welcome the comments that some of you have made recently condemning the bombing in Oklahoma City….But I also know there have been lawbreakers among those who espouse your philosophy." (Emphasis added.)

"There have been lawbreakers among those who espouse your philosophy." Clinton may start with the "to be sures"—acknowledging that his nameless opponents are law-abiding and condemn the bombing—but he ends with guilt by association. Anyone who "believe[s] the greatest threat to America" comes from the government might as well be a terrorist. After all, they're on the same philosophical team.

Just who is purveying hate and division now? Just who is using wild words? Just who is paranoid, spinning out conspiracy theories built on blurring distinctions and imagining "links"?

Clinton continues: "Do people who work for the government sometimes make mistakes? Of course they do. They are human. Almost every American has some experience with this—a rude tax collector, an arbitrary regulator, an insensitive social worker, an abusive law officer. As long as human beings make up our government there will be mistakes….But there is no right to resort to violence when you don't get your way. There is no right to kill people. There is no right to kill people who are doing their duty, or minding their own business, or children who are innocent in every way. Those are the people who perished in Oklahoma City. And those who claim such rights are wrong and un-American."

First he makes an amazing declaration coming from an advocate of bigger government and the recipient of public-employee PAC money: "Almost every American" has had some experience with obnoxious, abusive government officials. By shifting the blame to individuals—it's those awful civil servants—he deflects criticism of the system. Don't question the law, he suggests, blame the enforcer.

He then cleverly moves the argument from whether government power is something to be feared—obviously not, since the problem is a few rotten workers—to whether violence against public employees is justified. Here, he lumps together "people who are doing their duty" (the Nuremberg defense), people who are "minding their own business," and "children who are innocent in every way."

It's not clear who advocates killing any of these people under current conditions. But at least in theory they are distinguishable. One can imagine circumstances under which self-defense might be justified against the first group; it's hard to conjure up rationales for attacking either of the other two. But Clinton's rhetorical mode is to blur distinctions.

And to smear by innuendo. By never specifying whom he is attacking—Who exactly claims the right to kill "children who are innocent in every way"? Who claims the right to kill "the people who perished in Oklahoma City"?—Clinton manages to call all of his political opponents murderers and then say he didn't.

He accomplished the same thing with his vague attack on "loud and angry voices." Was he talking about all conservative and libertarian talk radio hosts? G. Gordon Liddy? Or just conspiracy theorists like "Mark from Michigan"? He was in fact smearing them all, but preserving his deniability.

And he does this over and over again. Later in the MSU speech, he says to "all others who believe that the greatest threat to freedom comes from the government instead of from those who would take away our freedom [which, of course, begs the question]: If you say violence is an acceptable way to make change, you are wrong. If you say that government is in a conspiracy to take your freedom away, you are just plain wrong."

Is the issue violence? Conspiracy? Or the audacious claim that government power is a threat to freedom—perhaps, in the post-Cold War era, the greatest threat? Clinton sweeps them all together. Forty-five percent of Americans surveyed in late April told Times Mirror that they "think that the activities of the federal government pose a threat to the constitutional rights enjoyed by the average American." As far as Bill Clinton's rhetorical sleight of hand is concerned, 45 percent of Americans may just possibly advocate blowing up babies.

Clinton is sleazier, if less deft, when he speaks off the cuff. On 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace asked whether the president had any second thoughts about the Waco raid. Clinton never really answered the question, but he did suggest that anyone who questions the government's actions is "making heroes" of the Branch Davidians.

And, he insinuated, raising such questions is tantamount to justifying the Oklahoma City bombing: "I cannot believe that any serious patriotic American believes that the conduct of those people at Waco justifies the kind of outrageous behavior we've seen here at Oklahoma City or the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that we're hearing all across this country today. It's wrong." (Emphasis added.) Asking that government agents be held responsible for their actions—actions that resulted in the deaths of scores of Americans—is, by association, equivalent to blowing up innocent people. Especially if you use "inflammatory rhetoric."

Many commentators have noted that Clinton can't tell the difference between talking and acting. They mean that he substitutes words for deeds, especially in foreign policy, and is shocked when his yammering has no effect.

In the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, we have seen a different side of that confusion—the deliberate conflation of his opponents' words with the deadly deeds of a handful of vicious, isolated individuals. Using tactics that would make Joe McCarthy sit up and take notes, Bill Clinton has sought to intimidate critics of government policy by branding them as terrorists.

Such tactics must not work. Loud voices are not the same as violent deeds. Criticism is not the same as murder. Exposing government violence is not the same as blowing up buildings. It is grossly irresponsible to blur these distinctions. And those who rely on such smear tactics are in no position to lecture the rest of us about toning down rhetoric.

In fact, wide-open debate is the best chance for restraining violent impulses. Contrary to the Los Angeles Times editorialists, hearings on Waco would be a very good idea, especially now. Information is the enemy both of out-of-control government and of paranoia. Vigorous, open dissent is a powerful check on government excesses—and an important, peaceful outlet for citizen grievances.

Declaring those grievances illegitimate, and those citizens the philosophical allies of murderers, may make a weak president feel strong. But it won't make the grievances go away. And it won't make sleazy rhetoric any less sleazy.