The threats and violence against Democrats aren't really surprising, even if they are disturbing. American culture and American politics have been infused with violence since before America was even an independent nation, and it has continued to be an important strand in the American tapestry throughout our history. Of course, those who employ violence never perceive themselves as doing anything wrong: they are only doing what is necessary to achieve political goals which they cannot advance through the normal democratic process.
Violence never occurs in a vacuum. For violence or even threats of violence to occur, the ground must first be prepared and people themselves made ready. Most people don't typically live in a state where they are constantly ready to be violent; instead, they must first have their passions aroused through fear, and through the fear brought to the point where they hate enough that they are willing to overcome any natural sympathies towards their fellow human beings in order to harm them.
In our present situation, we find Republicans have been actively preparing the ground for threats and violence. For months they have been using the most extreme rhetoric possible, not to simply disagree with and criticize Democratic policies, but rather to deny that Democrats should be regarded as trying to do something good or right. Instead of treating the Democrats as misguided or mistaken, they have encouraged people to see the Democrats as evil, demonic, subhuman, and in some cases illegitimate office holders.
Yet all of this has paled in comparison to what they've been doing recently. The promotion of violence by "responsible" Republican leaders has been growing more and more overt, and so the Republican base has responded in an entirely predictable manner: first being blatant in their own violent rhetoric, then specifically endorsing the use of violence, and finally committing violent acts.
In the end, we have right-wing conservatives threatening to kill liberal politicians because those politicians are trying to provide basic health care to more Americans — not even all Americans, just more of them. When democratically elected politicians hold a majority in the government and then try to enact just a tiny piece of what they promised they would do, and the opposition reacts with violence, that is a direct repudiation of democratic politics and the republican system.
Deny & Deflect
The standard Republican response to questions about their responsibility for the threats and violence has been to deny any connection between them and what their base is doing, then deflect questions to the Democrats. Unfortunately for them, their denials aren't the least bit credible — indeed, we can't even conclude that they believe their own denials.
For one thing, if they really thought that their words didn't have any impact on people, why would they bother with even their weak condemnations of what's happened? It seems to me that unless they want to argue that nothing they say can have any impact on anyone at any time, then their statements about why threats are wrong is an admission that their words can influence people — and that means that negative words can have a negative influence.
What's more, aren't these Republicans among the first to insist that the extremist rhetoric of a few Muslim clerics is partially responsible for Islamic terrorism? Aren't these Republicans among the first to insist that Muslim leaders must voice strong condemnations of all religiously-motivated violence and refuse to engage in any sort of rhetoric which might even appear to condone or encourage hatred, fear, and violence?
Blaming the Victims
We're even seeing Republicans trying to blame the victims of the threats and violence. Eric Cantor alleges that Democrats are "fan[ning] the flames" by making public the threats they have received — but he rejects the idea that extremist rhetoric from Republicans is "fanning the flames." Karl Rove has also said that Democrats are encouraging more violence by going public with reports of the threats and violence that have already occurred. These are transparent and obvious attempts to get Democrats to just keep silent about the truth.
Then, curiously enough, Karl Rove proceeded to list all the threats he's received over the years. Now either he was deliberately trying to encourage more threats and violence against himself or he never really believed his original, outrageous claim. The correct choice is obviously the latter, but why would he claim something so obviously absurd? The answer I think is that this is a standard political tactic of his: attack opponents where you are weak in order to distract attention away from criticisms against your weak points.
It's a tactic that works and which he has used to great effectiveness in the past. If this is just another example of it, then this means that Karl Rove recognizes that Republicans have a weak spot when it comes to encouraging the hatred and fear necessary for violence to occur. Instead of admitting it and trying to fix it, he attacks Democrats for allegedly doing the same in a different way. It doesn't matter how absurd the allegation is, just so that it muddies the waters and distracts attention from Republicans' behavior.
In an ideal world, Republican leaders would appear next to Democratic leaders to deliver a joint statement condemning both the violence and the threats of violence. They would call on people to tone down their extremist rhetoric and recognize that despite all the political differences, everyone involved is an American working towards common goals. But that's not going to happen, is it? GOP chairman Steele wouldn't even sign a joint statement condemning the violence, never mind appear in public next to a Democrat to deliver the message personally.
And even if Republicans did try to do this, would anyone believe them? Would they have any credibility left for such a message after they have spent so many months fanning the flames of fear and hatred against Democrats? I don't think so. In fact, the only sort of message that I can imagine a Republican delivering on the subject is something like this:
I'm appearing before you today with my esteemed Democrat colleagues to call on all Americans to avoid threats or violence on political issues. We Republicans understand how angry people are at having health care regulations rammed down your throats, but that's no reason to make threatening phone calls. We sympathize with your outrage at how Democrat policies are causing a holocaust as millions of unborn children are murdered, but that's no reason to break Democrat windows. We feel your pain as you gaze upon the Apocalypse unleashed upon our nation by the foreign-born, brown-skinned Muslim usurper in the Oval Office, but that's no reason to go around cutting gas lines.
We are all obliged to treat Democrats with civility, no matter how obscene and outrageous their immoral policies may be. We in the Republican Party have decided to take a leadership role in demonstrating this civility in the hopes that it will inspire others around America to step up and starting behaving in a more appropriate manner.
So we'll be giving our Democrat colleagues here a generous five minute head start before we start shooting. They can't ask for much more than that, can they?
Oh, and your five minutes started back when the conference began. It's so like you to disrespect our generosity like this — but you don't have much time left so you better start hoofin' it.
Remember the memo released by Homeland Security a little less than a year ago? It warned about the growing membership in right-wing extremist groups and that therefore there was a growing threat of violence from right-wing extremists. The memo was designed as a warning to law enforcement agencies everywhere so they could be a little more vigilant about a threats which might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Conservatives expressed outrage, apparently because the report drew too much attention to an important base of Republican support. Conservatives who support the use of racial and religious profiling to stop terrorism from brown-skinned Muslims complained about "political profiling" — because certain races and religions are much more reliable predictors of terrorism than extremist or violent political beliefs.
That original DHS report was retracted because of conservatives' hissy fit. How much less attention did the extremist groups get because of this? How much violence will they be able to commit because of the defense, cover, and apologetics provided by leading conservatives and Republicans?