Right now there’s a post up at Daily Kos entitled “30 Years of Right Wing Violence in Pictures.” If you read it top to bottom it certainly makes the case that there is plenty of right wing hatred in this country, and it’s far from complete. Certainly some right wingers will rightfully protest that these are nutjob acts which are not representative. Others will counter-attack with a litany of “you too’s” and even argue that some of these people are inherently left wing (Hitler was a liberal afterall).
Their youtoo’s might not be quite as numerous over the last 30 years (the Brinks robbery and a handful of other post-Weathermen acts in the early 1980s and the dubious example of the guy who took hostages over environmental concerns some months ago). But if you take it back 40 years you have the Weathermen themselves (though they never actually killed anybody but three of their own by accident), the BPP, the SLA, and less persuasively the Manson murders and Jonestown (which of course didn’t happen within the borders).
And if we go back 50 years we argue whether Lee H. Oswald was a left winger or some sort of agent/patsy of a larger conspiracy, and then over the course of a decade a string of the left wingers leaders were violently killed (MLK, Bobby Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dow Wilson, Lloyd Green, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner). The only right wing leader I can think of who was killed at the time was George Lincoln Rockwell who was offed by one of his fellow Nazis. Of course, you can look at each of these killings and argue that the motivation was not right wing ideology and perhaps not ideology at all. But then we had the institutional violence in which BPP members were killed without provocation, and students were killed at Kent State and Jackson State. Many leftists did feel that it was open season on them, and that may partly account for the left wing violence of the late 60s and early 70s. Whether justified objectively, left wingers are feeling the same way right now, and in tough economic times it’s unsettling. Even before Obama was elected, a Fox News fan attacked a Unitarian Church in Kentucky, killing two and wounding others, having decided that morning to go out and “hunt liberals” and knowing where to find them. And as the Kos post points out, we have a string of anti-abortion killings and attacks, though the anti-abortion groups have not been placed on the terror list along with radical environmental groups (whose body count remains at zero).
Now, we’re arguing whether the most recent acts of violence should be attributed to something inherent in right wing ideology or in the rhetorical climate of the Fox News/talk radio era. In the most recent discussions, Michelle Malkin posted a list of left wing rhetorical moments which were certainly alarming, but none of which came from mainstream prominent left wing figures, and there is merit to the left argument that it is the Republican leadership which is generating a poison climate which may or may not give the wacko fringe elements a sense of mandate and legitimacy. It is also true that some of the accusations have been overblown and unfair. Palin’s cross-hairs were not productive in terms of legitimate debate, but she was not responsible for the attack in Tucson. Nor to be frank was Rep. Giffords’ irresponsible election opponent. Nobody really knows what sets violence off, and while it is fair to demand less rhetorical extremity in an abundance of caution and personal responsibility, I really do believe that we should also limit our use of terms like “hate speech” so that they don’t lose meaning in knee-jerk partisanship.
The answer to the post title question is that the question itself is pointless; as is the hair splitting over body counts, definitions, and often futile attempts to ascertain any kind of meaningful or coherent motivation in senseless acts. Is the ideology really the motivating factor, or does it just provide a psychological back-drop for a psychosis which is going to result in violence regardless?
On the other hand, in all other countries, when a political figure is killed, it’s considered assassination and political motivation is presumed. In this country, it’s always some alleged lone nut, no matter how much the killing benefits political opposition. But even if there is political motivation, is it fair to blame the ideology itself and link all its adherents to the killing? (That was a rhetorical question). Is Diane Feinstein’s moderation responsible for the Moscone/Milk killings because a right-of-center Democrat prevented her from becoming a mere footnote in SF political history? Was Nixon’s ideology responsible because Bobbie Kennedy’s death all but assured his ascendancy? Would it have been fair to tie Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressivism to the anarchist killing of his predecessor?
The vast majority of left wingers and right wingers believe in peaceful if heated exchanges of ideas, and most of those who talk in violent terms don’t mean it literally. And both sides of the spectrum contain zealots, ruthless opportunists, and troubled individuals who use the ideology as an excuse. Whether one is more prone to the acts probably depends on the circumstances of the moment in history – which side is feeling more disenfranchised, how deeply they feel, how high they perceive the stakes, and yes, whether the leadership is excusing or implicitly condoning acts outside of what is reasonable. There’s no score to keep, because it’s not something that can be quantified or measured. The reasonable answer to the question is “we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.”