Earlier this year, in the wake of the near-fatal shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I wrote two columns about violent rhetoric and actions in America. At the time, the convenient narrative in the mainstream media was that violent talk emanated equally from both sides of the political spectrum.
I argued that such false equivalencies masked a more violent strain of language from conservative elites and more frequent use of violence by conservative activists. I challenged readers to cite chapter and verse of liberal transgressions of equal quantity or magnitude.
Readers poured forth with a lot of examples, but most were cases of individual citizens using dark or graphic language. Such expressions do emanate from both sides, and they are equally disconcerting and counterproductive in a deliberative democracy.
But violent language from a small set of unhinged persons is one thing. When the language comes from elites, like political leaders and party officials, or when citizen sentiments morph from mere words into violent deeds, a line has been crossed. In the first column, I cited five cases of conservative Republicans running for Congress in just the 2010 cycle who utilized rather dark, gun-themed language in their campaigns; in the second, I cited several acts of violence committed by anti-tax, anti-abortion or anti-government conservatives.
Readers — many of them apparently devotees of conservative columnist Michelle Malkin — pointed to language by President Barack Obama, who spoke of "bringing a gun" to fights with opponents who brand a knife. For fans of the movie "The Untouchables," this statement is an obvious metaphorical play on a line Sean Connery uses in that film.
But I had already written that Sarah Palin's similar use of crosshairs and the term "target" in her much-discussed visual showing Democratic House members the GOP hoped to beat in 2010 was typical campaign rhetoric. Both parties use "targeting" and "fighting" as metaphors that clearly imply inflicting electoral, not literal, injury.
Other readers pointed out that Joseph Stack, the man who flew his plane into a federal office building in Texas, was mad at the IRS but also a registered Democrat who disliked George W. Bush and wasn't involved in the anti-tax movement. Fair enough.
One alert reader pointed out that a T-shirt found in a bag with an undetonated bomb in it at a Martin Luther King Day event was not, as initial news reports indicated and I repeated, a "rally for life" shirt (suggesting an anti-abortionist at work) but a "relay for life" cancer fundraiser shirt. But the man the FBI now believes is the failed bomber is a member of a white supremacist group.
What I never got, however, were liberal examples equivalent to the anti-government terrorism of Timothy McVeigh, or the racist car-dragging death of James Byrd, or the bombing of Atlanta's Centennial Park by anti-abortion activist Eric Rudolph.
Pulling the lens back even further, there is also a broader pattern of asymmetrical political violence in America. While not always strictly left-right ideologically, violence has often been employed by the powerful to subjugate the powerless.
Yes, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, radical labor rights movement leaders killed or attempted to kill corporate bosses and even elected officials; but the balance of picket-line violence was perpetrated by corporate bullies who terrorized, maimed, and in some cases literally beat to death striking workers. Yes, during the Age of Aquarius, campus radicals took over administration buildings by force, and organizations like the Black Panthers sometimes resorted to violence; but again, it wasn't political liberals who unleashed dogs and opened fire hoses on protesters, bombed the Freedom Riders' buses, or killed the Kent State students.
On conservative talk radio and television, liberals are often maligned as weak-kneed wussies who don't have the guts to fight terrorists abroad or punish criminals at home — in stark contrast to those tough, realist conservatives willing to take a bullet in defense of freedom abroad and unwilling to surrender their guns unless pried from their cold, dead hands.
Such caricatures are oversimplified and wrong, of course. But conservatives can't have it both ways: Are we really supposed to believe that violent language and action are equally likely to emanate from gun-toting toughies and limp-wristed, soft-on-crime pansies?
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday in The Sun. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.