Bloomberg Ricin Attack: Don't Overreact Just Yet

When an issue is as superheated as gun control, one can almost instinctively predict the reaction to news stories such as this one:

"New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has received an anonymous threatening letter that preliminary tests indicated contained the presence of the poison ricin, law enforcement officials told NBC News.

A similar letter, which early tests indicated contained ricin, was also sent to the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in Washington, D.C.

In both letters, the writer made threatening comments about Bloomberg’s support for gun control, NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public information Paul Browne said."

That is why, before our reactions to this story jump the gun (pun intended), we should take a step back and remind ourselves of two things:

1. As Daniel Webster famously put it, "Keep cool; anger is not an argument." While gun control advocates have every right to be livid at the palm greasing and rightist paranoia-baiting used by the NRA and their ilk to kill regulatory measures, that does not justify smearing all who hold a conservative position on this issue. We cannot afford a repeat of the overreactions that occurred after incidents like the John Kennedy assassination and Gabby Giffords assassination attempt, in which liberals immediately blamed their favorite right-wing targets for acts of violence against progressive public officials. The vast majority of Americans who oppose gun control do so for reasons that are just as well-intentioned as those who favor such policies. If we allow ourselves to use this single incident as an opportunity to smear an entire movement, we will be guilty of a terrible disservice to the vital spirit of our democracy. At the same time...

2. Conservatives need to remember that words have consequences. As I pointed out in an op-ed last month on right-wing extremism, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report in April 2009 warning that extreme rightist groups were "already working to attract new recruits 'by playing on their fears about several emergent issues' like immigration, gun control and economic policy'" and that "'lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing [sic] extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.''" The reason for DHS's concern at that time, and that of many moderates and liberals today, is that the rhetoric employed by extremists often fails to simply characterize their ideological opponents as being misguided or wrong. Instead liberals are depicted as socialists, utopianists, despisers of god and worshippers of big government - a threat to "whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values," to quote Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay on American political paranoia, whose ideas cannot be met halfway through compromise "since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil" and as such "what is necessary is ... the will to fight things out to a finish."

In short, if there is one takeaway lessons which self-proclaimed pundits can safely intone based on the early information leaking out about this incident, it is the one articulated by President Obama himself in the aftermath of the Gabby Giffords assassination attempt:

"But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do - it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."

If that message can't be met with sincere and unequivocal approval from all sides of the ideological spectrum - regardless of what one thinks of this particular president - then our body politic requires strong medicine indeed.