On May 6, 1995, two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton gave the commencement speech at Michigan State University and used the opportunity to assail the rise of antigovernment, pro-militia sentiment among America‘s far right. "There is nothing patriotic about hating your government," Clinton said, "or pretending you can hate your government but love your country."
In the wake of Saturday‘s horrific shooting in Arizona, those words are as true today as they were fifteen years ago.
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to change the tone in Washington beyond the partisan bickering that defined the Clinton and Bush years, so that Americans could "disagree without being disagreeable." But his political opponents never agreed to play by those terms. Apocalyptic depictions of Obama and ludicrous rhetoric about his record, which turned the president into a foreign-born socialist intent on destroying free enterprise, became a standard critique for much of the Tea Party and its acolytes.
"Relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right," wrote The New Yorker‘s George Packer blogged on Sunday. "And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders."
Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center found that "the number of extremist groups in the United States exploded in 2009 as militias and other groups steeped in wild, antigovernment conspiracy theories exploited populist anger across the country and infiltrated the mainstream." So-called "Patriot" groups increased by a shocking 244 percent in 2009. "This extraordinary growth is a cause for grave concern," said Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC‘s comprehensive report "Rage on the Right." The "radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism" of the Patriot movement were given legitimacy by the Tea Party and conservative icons like Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachman, the SPLC noted.
A report on right-ring extremism released by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 was chock full of similar conclusions. "Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda," DHS found. It‘s scary to read the report today and realize how prescient it was. (Interestingly enough, many conservatives criticized the report, which Michelle Malkin termed a "hit job.")
Four hundred and fifty thousand more guns were purchased in November 2008 than in November 2007, which not surprisingly contributed to an outpouring of violent incidents over the past two years. If you don‘t believe me, see this horrifying "insurrectionism timeline" compiled by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Few places in recent years have combined a more lethal mix of nativism, gun culture and religious right sentiment than Arizona, a place where Ken Silverstein of Harper‘s wrote that "the Tea Party is arguably the ruling party." And it seems like the national Republican Party is following Arizona‘s lead. "Should the Republicans succeed in retaking power nationwide over the next four years," Silverstein wrote in July, "the country might start to resemble the right-wing desert that Arizona has become." The GOP has already become the party of Palin and Beck, dominated by anger, ignorance and intolerance. It‘s delusional to treat them as anything but such.
Following the Oklahoma City bombing Clinton displayed signature empathy, but he also aggressively went after those who aided and abetted far-right lunatics like Timothy McVeigh. "Republicans pinpoint this as a moment when Clinton defined them—the party that had just taken Congress—as out of the mainstream," Slate‘s Dave Weigel reported. Without politicizing the current tragedy in Arizona, Obama should be similarly clear about the dangers this country faces if the current climate of right-wing hate is allowed to go unchallenged.
On April 18, 2010, the fifteenth anniversary of Oklahoma City, Clinton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the lessons of that tragedy. "Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy," the former president wrote. "No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws."
Clinton warned that such a line was crossed in Oklahoma City and that it could happen again. "In the current climate, with so many threats against the president, members of Congress and other public servants, we owe it to the victims of Oklahoma City, and those who survived and responded so bravely, not to cross it again," he wrote, nine months before Saturday's massacre in Arizona.