By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Fifteen years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, we saw two very different commemorations of that tragic event.
In Oklahoma City, survivors and families of the 168 people killed in the bombing gathered on April 19 for a solemn memorial at the monument where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. While across the nation, in the spirit of Timothy McVeigh and led by Rush Limbaugh, today’s hate-America crowd engaged in a frenzied attack on Bill Clinton.
What stirred up the talk-show crazies were the former president’s comments at a Center for American Progress forum on April 16 discussing the lessons of Oklahoma City. “What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold,” Clinton told his audience, echoing a warning he first issued in 1995. “But that the words we use really do matter.”
The reason words matter, he explained, is because “they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.” Therefore, Clinton said, those who command the public microphone, whether politicians or media personalities, have a responsibility to choose their words carefully.
For the life of me, I can’t find anything wrong with what Clinton said. Notice that he was not talking about censorship or taking away anybody’s First Amendment rights. He simply repeated two obvious but important facts: Words have consequences, and we must choose our words carefully. Yet to hear his detractors, you’d think Clinton had encouraged people to go out and blow up another building.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) called Clinton’s remarks “unconscionable.” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) accused him of trying to “cheapen” the memory of the bombing. And talkmeister Limbaugh, way over the top as usual, actually accused Clinton himself of inciting violence.
On his radio show, just a couple of hours after Clinton’s speech, Limbaugh bellowed: “I’m going to state right now: If there is a future incident such as Oklahoma City, the blame is squarely Clinton’s, on the shoulders of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who I’m sure is coordinating Clinton’s appearance on this.”
It was the former president, not irresponsible talkers like himself, argued Rushbo, who was stirring up hate: “Bill Clinton … just gave the kooks out there an excuse to be violent.”
Limbaugh’s accusation, of course, is nonsense. Blaming the man who warns against violence of himself inciting violence is like blaming Smokey the Bear for forest fires. But the vehement reaction to his comments means Clinton is on to something.
Indeed, the rhetoric we hear today, mainly from the right-wing fringe, is, if anything, even uglier than the loose rhetoric floating around in 1995. And it’s not just coming from radio and TV talk-show hosts. It’s also coming from politicians who should know better.
On the Washington Mall, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) railed against “gangster government.” On the floor of the House, Republican leader John Boehner compared health care reform to “Armageddon.” Sarah Palin urged her followers to “reload,” with a map showing crosshairs on congressional districts she planned to “target.”
Meanwhile, on the airwaves, Glenn Beck calls President Obama a racist. Limbaugh denounces Obama’s policies as “Marxist, socialism, fascism, whatever you want to call it.” Mike Huckabee says members of Congress should be “tarred and feathered.” And Fox News contributor Dick Morris gleefully opines that “Those crazies in Montana who say ‘We’re going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.’s going to take over’ — well, they’re beginning to have a case.”
After that cascade of hate talk, is it any wonder that, in the last month alone, death threats were received against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie?
Remember Fort Hood. Immediately after Maj. Nidal Hasan shot and killed 13 people on the world’s most populous military base, we readily accepted that his actions had been at least partially triggered by the anti-American rhetoric of imam Anwar al-Awlaki.
And that, more than anything else, proves Clinton’s point. If Hasan were driven to violence by the hate speech of al-Awlaki, then surely other unstable people could be driven to violence by the hate speech of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.
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