When a Fox News anchor, reacting to his own network's surging e-mail traffic, warns urgently on-camera of a rise in hate-filled, "amped up" Americans who are "taking the extra step and getting the gun out," maybe we should listen. He has better sources in that underground than most.
The anchor was Shepard Smith, speaking after Wednesday's mayhem at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Unlike the bloviators at his network and elsewhere on cable, Smith is famous for his highly caffeinated news-reading, not any political agenda. But very occasionally — notably during Hurricane Katrina — he hits the Howard Beale mad-as-hell wall. Joining those at Fox who routinely disregard the network's "We report, you decide" mantra, he both reported and decided, loudly.
What he reported was this: his e-mail from viewers had "become more and more frightening" in recent months, dating back to the election season. From Wednesday alone, he "could read a hundred" messages spewing "hate that's not based in fact," much of it about Barack Obama and some of it sharing the museum gunman's canard that the president was not a naturally born citizen. These are Americans "out there in a scary place," Smith said.
Then he brought up another recent gunman: "If you're one who believes that abortion is murder, at what point do you go out and kill someone who's performing abortions?" An answer, he said, was provided by Dr. George Tiller's killer. He went on: "If you are one who believes these sorts of things about the president of the United States ..." He left the rest of that chilling sentence unsaid.
These are extraordinary words to hear on Fox. The network"s highest-rated star, Bill O'Reilly, had assailed Tiller, calling him "Tiller the baby killer" and likening him to the Nazis, on 29 of his shows before the doctor was murdered at his church in Kansas. O'Reilly was unrepentant, stating that only "pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters" would link him to the crime. But now another Fox star, while stopping short of blaming O'Reilly, was breaching his network's brand of political correctness: he tied the far-right loners who had gotten their guns out in Wichita and Washington to the mounting fury of Obama haters.
What is this fury about? In his scant 145 days in office, the new president has not remotely matched the Bush record in deficit creation. Nor has he repealed the right to bear arms or exacerbated the wars he inherited. He has tried more than his predecessor ever did to reach across the aisle. But none of that seems to matter. A sizable minority of Americans is irrationally fearful of the fast-moving generational, cultural and racial turnover Obama embodies — indeed, of the 21st century itself. That minority is now getting angrier in inverse relationship to his popularity with the vast majority of the country. Change can be frightening and traumatic, especially if it's not change you can believe in.
We don't know whether the tiny subset of domestic terrorists in this crowd is egged on by political or media demagogues — though we do tend to assume that foreign jihadists respond like Pavlov's dogs to the words of their most fanatical leaders and polemicists. But well before the latest murderers struck — well before another "antigovernment" Obama hater went on a cop-killing rampage in Pittsburgh in April — there have been indications that this rage could spiral out of control.
This was evident during the campaign, when hotheads greeted Obama's name with "Treason!" and "Terrorist!" at G.O.P. rallies. At first the McCain-Palin campaign fed the anger with accusations that Obama was "palling around with terrorists." But later John McCain thought better of it and defended his opponent's honor to a town-hall participant who vented her fears of the Democrats' "Arab" candidate. Although two neo-Nazi skinheads were arrested in an assassination plot against Obama two weeks before Election Day, the fever broke after McCain exercised leadership.
That honeymoon, if it was one, is over.
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