Front page articles in The New York Times and Washington Post today have already noted a sudden spike in threatening behavior against Democratic politicians since the passage of health care reform – bricks thrown through the windows of offices, pellets fired from air-rifles, propane gas lines to a private house severed, and veiled and overt death threats issued over the phone.
While some leading conservatives are continuing to stoke the flames, others are already trying to back away from the Pandora’s Box they have opened. It is not possible, however, for them to reverse the effects of an entire year of irresponsible rhetoric — calling Democrats Nazi’s, fascists, Storm troopers and so on –with a few brief statements to the press. To the extent that many grass-roots conservatives have become sincerely convinced by the grotesque accusations against Obama and the Democrats, it becomes no longer irrational for them to think that violent resistance may be required and justified.
Unfortunately, the problem is inevitably going to become significantly worse in the coming period because of several reinforcing social trends:
• First, the failure to defeat the health care bill will cause many of the more moderate and less committed anti-HCR protesters to become demoralized and fall away, leaving a smaller hard-core group of the more extreme protesters in control of the websites, message boards and discussion threads of the anti health care movement. This hard core will include both traditional organized extremist groups – neo-Nazi, skinhead, White Power, LaRouche followers — and individuals mobilized by the new generation of Fox News and internet-based commentary and social networks.
• Second, within this reduced group, the failure of legal protest to stop the health care bill will generate a strong pressure in favor of more extreme acts. The inability to stop the “slide into fascist dictatorship” will be offered as “proof” of the need for violence and also provide its justification. This social process of radicalization was evident in the 1960’s and early 1970’s – in the U.S. in the case of the Weathermen and Weather Underground and in Europe with the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades.
• Third, a vicious cycle will quickly develop. Provocative acts like those noted today force federal and local authorities to begin investigations. To the hard-core protesters, their actions then “prove” the existence of the imminent fascist takeover and justify and stimulate more extreme acts.
The problem is profoundly exacerbated in the United States today because of the increasing number of states with “Open Carry” laws for firearms and the growing movement among conservative gun owners to aggressively assert these new rights by gathering and openly carrying their weapons in public places like coffee shops and political meetings.
It is therefore likely that there will soon be organized very intentionally provocative marches and demonstrations that feature the ostentatious display of both guns and also signs expressing clear threats to use them against Democrats. There will also be the creation of secessionist “militia camps” like those in the 1990’s that will violate various kinds of state and national laws in order to deliberately dare and provoke law enforcement officials to come in and create an incident.
Law enforcement officials are fully aware of this strategy and, since the Waco, Texas conflict and the Oklahoma City bombing have refined their tactics for dealing with such intentional provocations. Despite this, it is unfortunately likely that one or more tragedies will occur in the coming period. The only thing Democrats can do is to recognize the danger and take whatever precautions they can devise.