09/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Equal and Opposite Reaction

Maybe I've been wrong all this time.

While a lot of the usual suspects on the left seemed to embrace victimhood at the hands of the Coulters, Limbaughs and Savages of the world, I always kind of dismissed the bellicose mouthpieces of the far-right as little more than Vaudevillian boobs. I looked at them as the media's equivalent of carnival barkers -- cut-rate provocateurs spouting amplified, affectedly shocking nonsense aimed at whipping their audience into a feeding frenzy while enticing new recruits into the tent by playing on their fears of liberal-agenda infestation. Sure, they were obnoxious as hell and probably deserved most of the blame for the complete erosion of civilized political discourse in this country, but in the end they were basically harmless; they'd simply stumbled upon a template for a brand of shtick sure to make them rich and it happened to involve, ironically, exploiting the lily-livered gullibility of Red State America better than anything their sworn enemies could've come up with. The best way to deal with their crap? Ignore it -- because anything else just emboldens the bullies and makes them not only increase the antagonism but laugh in your face for either not being able to "take a joke" or for failing to recognize just how powerless you are against them. Besides, I had always assumed that although plenty of people found these pompous loudmouths entertaining and bought wholly into the sentiment behind the saber-rattling, no one took them that seriously -- did they?

Somewhere along the line, I guess I forgot just who we were talking about here -- just what kind of people would listen intently to someone like Rush Limbaugh day after day and what they might be capable of.

The question, though, is this: Would some on the American far-right -- who've had it psychically drilled into them that liberals are to blame for all their ills -- be capable of murder?

What started as a mere whisper has turned into an unrelenting drone throughout the blogosphere after the shooting death of Bill Gwatney, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. Gwatney was gunned down in his office at the Arkansas Democrats' HQ in Little Rock Wednesday by a man who had just been fired from his job at Target. Police say that after shooting Gwatney, 50-year-old Tim Dale Johnson led them on a high-speed chase for 30 miles; it ended with cops shooting and killing him. Although investigators are still trying to officially connect Bill Gwatney to the man who walked into a busy office and seemed to kill him in cold blood for no apparent reason, some are suggesting that the reason, in fact, is as obvious as it is disturbing -- that Johnson, a troubled loner, blamed liberal-leaning governmental politics for the loss of his job and exacted his revenge on the biggest target among Arkansas Democrats. They point to an arsenal of weapons found in Johnson's home after the shooting -- inarguably standard issue for right-wing psychopaths -- and, more disconcertingly, the fact that Wednesday's attack comes so soon after a deadly shooting inside a Tennessee church in which a gunman claimed to be out to kill the liberals who were supposedly controlling the country and preventing him from getting a job.

Is it irresponsible to question whether the two crimes are related? No. It's sort of a no-brainer to make the connection, as the shootings do seem similar and, like the police, most intellectually curious members of the public don't like coincidences. But are the crimes related? That remains to be seen; for now, absolutely not.

Which isn't stopping a vocal segment of the left from already jumping to the conclusion that these attacks on individuals whose politics take a liberal slant represent the inevitable next phase of a conservative "eliminationist" fantasy.

It's an agenda which has, admittedly, been proclaimed and perpetuated -- whether in jest or not -- by people like Limbaugh, Coulter and Savage for some time. These three and others like them have honed their talk of zero-tolerance for the people across the aisle to a knife's edge. For years, they've blanketed the airwaves, bookshelves and internet with ultra-nationalist agitprop which asserts that those who don't think like them are not simply to be argued with and voted down, they must be utterly crushed underfoot by any means necessary -- even if it involves, as Coulter once said, taking a baseball bat to them -- because they are nothing less than the enemy of the United States of America. In the words, if not actually the minds, of these seemingly fascist demagogues, liberals are as dangerous and absolute a threat to our way of life as the terrorists they supposedly coddle.

And there's no doubt that whatever their actual intentions may be -- no matter how much of it is just theater -- people are listening to the rhetoric and absorbing it. But are a few of those people now acting on it, and do the ones allegedly inciting the indignation through their bluster and bombast bear any responsibility for what it may be metastasizing into?

For almost a century, the litmus test for the lengths to which so-called free speech can legally be taken has come from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who famously ruled that "falsely shouting fire in a theater" was beyond protection; it's almost always been illegal to use a public forum to incite panic, violence or imminent lawless action. By that standard, there's just no way that any of these pundits at any time has crossed the line and broken the law. But legal doesn't always mean ethical, particularly not when you're refusing to take into consideration the fact that a substantial portion of your audience is made up of edgy, easily malleable "oppressed" white guys -- many of whom are now unemployed and looking for someone to blame for it. Although it's never a good idea to allow the potential misbehavior of the lowest common denominator to curb the right to free speech, it's equally inadvisable, not to mention irresponsible, to act as though you're operating in a vacuum -- as if what you say can't possibly have a negative impact, despite its incendiary nature. This was what made it such a pathetically insincere cop-out years ago when some lunatic from the Army of God would gun down an abortion doctor, leading Operation Rescue's Randall Terry to immediately get in front of a camera to offer an anemic and thoroughly horseshit disclaimer that he didn't advocate violence against abortion doctors. Terry set the wheels in motion and let nature take its course; today, the same thing could very easily be happening on a much larger scale.

Once again, whether they mean it to or not, the invective of clowns like Limbaugh does have an impact. Listen long enough to right-wing propaganda and your eyes eventually glaze over, your brain shuts down and you begin to subscribe completely to the alternate reality that it's constructed out of thin air: an America where your new non-white neighbors are terrorists, immigrants are stealing your job, homosexuals want to lure your children into a life of sodomy, and treasonous liberals are plotting against you and your god at every turn. Believe this paranoid fantasy completely and who knows what you'll be capable of doing to defend your way of life.

It's no secret that the natural consequence of the fracturing of media -- of everyone having a voice and being able to put his or her opinions into writing and proffer them over the airwaves and internet -- is that there is no truth anymore. We have no common ground to anchor any argument. The left and right in this country live in completely separate worlds, each with its own set of facts. When we debate, we may as well be speaking foreign languages, so entirely have we allowed a single agreed-upon reality to become muddled by dishonesty on both sides. Rush Limbaugh lies his porcine ass off regularly and no one ever calls him on it; the ones who do are just dismissed by his acolytes as delusional or secretly trying to further the leftist agenda. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal seem to launder George Bush's every sin until he comes out on the other end of the news cycle smelling fresh and clean.

And their listeners, viewers and readers believe every word of it. Their version of the truth, right or wrong, is why a man would shoot up a church in Tennessee, intransigent in the conviction that liberals are in control of the nation (when our president and half of our lawmakers are Republican) and that they've decimated the economy and taken away his job (when it could easily be argued Bush's policies, in fact, bear most if not all of the blame for the current dismal state of things).

For so long, the fire-and-brimstone of political division has been preached from every keyboard and microphone across our land; it was always just a matter of time before anger turned to action. All that rage had to go somewhere.

Maybe it just did.