Here we go again. Almost immediately after a former mental patient named John Bedell opened fire outside the Pentagon last week, the usual suspects rushed to suggest he was "inflamed by far-right conspiracy theories," had views that "eerily reflect fringe right-wing rhetoric," and was driven by "the same open hatred that right-wing bloggers, AM talk radio hosts, Fox News' lineup of anti-government prophets, and Tea Party leaders have been frantically fueling for the last year." Writers on the right retorted by stressing everything in Bedell's life that might seem left-wing: He was a registered Democrat, he hated George Bush, he had an affinity for 9/11 Truth theories.
Neither narrative was sustainable. The conservatives did a good job of refuting the idea that Bedell belonged to their tribe, but they were less persuasive when they suggested he hailed from the left. You needn't be a leftist to despise Bush, to be a truther, or even to join the Democratic Party. Perhaps he was some sort of libertarian—he liked both Mises and marijuana—but even if that label fits it hardly does justice to his baroque philosophy. The more information about the man emerged, the stranger his politics seemed, until finally Bedell was starkly revealed as one of a kind: a lone wolf—or lone lemming, given that the only person he managed to kill was himself—who had an elaborate plan for a monetary system in which the currency would be backed by cannabis.
I doubt the pundit class will learn much from the experience. When you're convinced the other side of the spectrum is bubbling over with violent rage, it's just too tempting to view every violent act through that same paranoid prism.
The template for these debates was set last summer by James Wenneker von Brunn, the aging neo-Nazi who attempted to start a shooting spree at the Holocaust museum in Washington. Chin-stroking centrists and fire-breathing progressives joined hands in blaming the right for inspiring the attack, even though there was no record of right-wing notables denouncing the museum. Many conservatives pushed back by claiming von Brunn was "really" a leftist, since he held several positions that most people on the right would reject. Of course, he also held several positions that most people on the left would reject. If there's one thing you can say for both the mainstream left and the mainstream right, it's that for all their flaws, they aren't neo-Nazis.
Von Brunn at least had an identifiable ideology, fringy though it may be. When Joe Stack flew a plane into an Austin IRS office last month, he left behind a manifesto that was a mix of left-wing resentments, right-wing resentments, and painfully specific resentments drawn from Stack's own life—most notably his tax problems, which he recounted with a wonk's attention to detail. The statement was obviously the product of one sad and angry man's experiences. Yet the prominent liberal blogger Josh Marshall, highlighting Stack's reference to "Mr. Big Brother IRS man," greeted the manifesto with the headline "Ideas Have Consequences," as though no American would resent the tax man if it weren't for the GOP's anti-tax rhetoric.
It doesn't work that way. Stack's worldview, like Bedell's, was a personalized hodge-podge. These men represent not the far left, not the far right, but the very far end of the political long tail. If they belong to a tradition, you won't find it by tracing the intellectual evolution of any organized movement. You'll find it in the lives of people like George Metesky, Samuel Byck, and Ted Kaczynski.
Metesky was a generator wiper for the New York power company who was injured in a boiler explosion in 1931, then saw his workman's comp claim denied. After a few years, he took his revenge by planting bombs around the city; he also sent postcards to the police and letters to the papers, featuring statements such as "BOMBS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL THE CONSOLIDATED EDISON COMPANY IS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE FOR THEIR DASTARDLY ACTS AGAINST ME." In 1956, 16 years after his first device was discovered, he was captured based on clues in his messages.
Byck, an out-of-work tire salesman, attempted in 1974 to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. Like Metesky, Byck spoke to the public through communiqués—in this case, rambling tapes he had mailed to the syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, the Connecticut senator Abe Ribicoff, the scientist Jonas Salk, and the composer Leonard Bernstein. Like Stack, Byck had both a specific grievance (the Small Business Administration had rejected his application for a loan) and a broader set of personal and social resentments. ("Whoever dies in project Pandora Box," he declared, "will be directly attributable to Watergate scandals.") Though white, he had tried to join the Black Panther Party; this was fictionalized to good effect in the movie The Assassination of Richard Nixon, with a scene that culminated with Byck proposing the Panthers rename themselves the Zebras.
Kaczynski is the Unabomber, that mathematician in a Montana shack who mailed 16 bombs to his targets from 1978 to 1995. Because he was driven by his hatred of technology, Kaczynski is often classified as an especially earnest Green; there's a silly test out there that asks you to pick which statements come from the Unabomber Manifesto and which from the works of Al Gore. But the pair don't have much in common. Gore is a liberal technocrat who wants the government to manage industry much more tightly. Kaczynski believes that "industrial-technological society cannot be reformed in such a way as to prevent it from progressively narrowing the sphere of human freedom," and he's no more a liberal than he is a conservative: His manifesto opens with an assault on the left, featuring statements such as "Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality." The document has more identifiable intellectual influences than Byck's tapes or Stack's suicide letter, but it's still ultimately one eccentric man's vision.
Joe Stack's manifesto earned him some sympathizers: alienated readers from both the left and the right who found something resonant in his resentments. That too has precedent, and not just among the Luddites who admire the Unabomber. Even Metesky became a folk hero in some circles. Members of the Diggers, a tribe of '60s radicals, often adopted the name George Metesky as a pseudonym, celebrating the bomber as a rebel against the system. "We're all Meteskys," one of them told The Village Voice in 1967. "We're a generation of schizophrenic mutants."
Those Diggers weren't brainwashed by some left-wing media cabal, and the men who launched these kamikaze attacks on the IRS and the Pentagon weren't a product of a right-wing noise machine. They cobbled together their worldviews on their own, ignoring the boundaries beloved by the country's dominant political subcultures. In that respect, at least, even homicidal crazies have something in common with the majority of Americans.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.