Exactly how far is too far?
Several times over the past month or so, I've dismissed Glenn Beck, the new clown prince of Fox News, as being not much more than a guy doing Kaufman-esque stand-up -- an opportunistic little turd who's playing his audience of paranoid conspiracists like a badly tuned piano in the name of making himself rich. At one point, I even admitted that Beck was basically good, clean fun -- or at least would be until some tinfoil-hatted psychopath who took his nonsense way too seriously decided to fire off a few rounds at President Obama.
But given what we're now seeing, the question has to be asked: Is it just a matter of time before something like that does in fact happen?
Over the weekend, a man in Pittsburgh gunned down three police officers who showed up to the home he shared with his mother on a domestic disturbance call. He strapped on a Kevlar vest and armed himself with an AK-47, waited for them to come through the door, then picked them off one by one. The details that have come out about the shooter since the attack are as infuriating as they are not-the-least-bit-surprising: 22-year-old Richard Poplawski is identified as a Marine Corps wash-out, a recently unemployed white supremacist who believes that the Jews control the media and that, most tellingly, the Obama Administration is planning to ban his beloved guns. In other words, he's exactly the kind of guy who, if you went on TV and told him that his worst paranoid hallucinations were coming true and that the new left-wing government was indeed poised to kick down his door and take his freedoms away, would believe every fucking word of it and act accordingly.
And if you don't think that that's exactly the message the Richard Poplawskis of this country are being inundated with from the far right these days, you're even more delusional than Poplawski himself.
Over the space of just the past couple of weeks, Glenn Beck has warned his loyal, terrified viewership of the coming socialist junta; lunatic congresswoman Michele Bachmann has claimed that the U.S. dollar is about to be replaced by foreign currency, American youths will soon be sent to "re-education camps," and patriotic citizens should be "armed and dangerous" and ready for revolution; disgraced CNBC loudmouth Jim Cramer has called the Democrats "Bolsheviks" and compared the U.S. House of Representatives to the Politburo; and Dick Morris, the no-lie smarmiest shitbag alive, spat this little pearl of wisdom into the Fox News echo chamber:
"Those crazies in Montana who say, ‘we’re going to kill ATF agents because the UN’s going to take over’ -- well, they’re beginning to have a case."
In case you missed that, let's rewind: Dick Morris says that militaristic nutjobs willing to kill government agents now have a fucking case.
Once again, exactly how far is too far?
While free speech has to be respected and the right to it protected, is there no line of rhetoric so incendiary, so dangerous, so shameless in its aim of instigating simply for the sake of ad revenue, that it can't provoke absolute outrage? If you know that there are an inordinate number of Richard Poplawskis listening to you and that they already buy thoroughly into half-baked persecution fantasies -- and then you purposely try to at best validate their fears or at worst scare the hell out of them even further -- don't you bear at least a small amount of responsibility for the outcome? Shouldn't there be accountability?
In a display of hypocrisy that's almost staggering, many on the right who once railed against the twin evils of violent video games and Marilyn Manson and decried their supposed relation to teen violence are now hiding behind the very argument they say bleeding-heart liberals used against them way back when: that you can't blame the messenger for the effect the message might have on one or two unstable individuals. To his credit, Bob Cesca has a good take on this specious comparison; he points out that the difference between, say, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- the Columbine killers -- and someone like Richard Poplawski is that Harris and Klebold, while certainly being budding gun fetishists, hadn't yet developed the intransigent political ideology that goes hand-in-hand with a maniacal worship of weapons in this country. Harris and Klebold, like Cho Seung Hui -- the Virginia Tech killer -- were basically impressionable kids using guns to lash out and make themselves feel powerful (the latter, a trait they indeed shared with Poplawski and one that should have precluded them from ever owning a goddamned gun in the first place). They loved guns, sure -- but they didn't yet have the distrust of a government they feared would one day come and take their precious weapons away. Poplawski was impressionable in another way in that he did think that his weapons made him part of a larger culture of True Believers, and any confirmation of an attack on the way of life espoused by he and those like him would be all it took to set him off. And it did. Poplawski likely always figured his guns could be used to level the socio-political and economic playing field, and in his twisted mind, that's exactly what happened.
But for those who would still claim that everyone is impressionable in his or her own way and that, at some level, both the creators of GTA4 and Glenn Beck need to acknowledge that their actions may have unintended consequences: You're right, to an extent. The bottom line is that while free speech and expression must be respected, there has to be a level of responsibility attached. It's reckless, dangerous and immoral to knowingly stoke the demons of a person's nature -- and what's worse, to pass off fantasy as fact and do it in the name of making a buck or a political point. It's intellectually dishonest to pretend that you're operating in a vacuum -- whether you're Marilyn Manson or Michele Bachmann -- and that nothing you say will have an impact on the crazies within your target audience.
So, I ask yet again: How far is too far?
I talked to my father a few days ago. He's an ex-cop and ex-Navy SEAL who now lives part-time in a little Florida town called Sebring -- right in the center of the state's hyper-Republican I-4 Corridor. He's had a concealed weapons permit for decades and is about the most qualified and responsible person I can imagine being allowed to carry a weapon. He mentioned to me that he had recently been to the local Wal-Mart looking for ammunition for his handgun -- the kind of thing that's typically in abundance at a Central Florida big box store. But what he found surprised him, and scared him a little.
The place was almost completely out of ammo. In fact, it turns out they can barely keep the stuff on the shelves these days.
Somebody out there is listening to the "warnings."
And I'm betting that what we've seen lately is just the beginning of the nightmare.