"Jane, you ignorant slut."
We all laughed when Dan Aykroyd tossed that insult at Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live's spoof of 60 Minutes, knowing that political debate would never sink to that level. How wrong we were. That insult seems mild today, compared to the steady stream of vitriol we hear from right-wing talk radio.
But, as I warn in my new book - Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America's Airwaves - the ugly stuff we hear daily from hate merchants Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and others is not only offensive. It's dangerous. Because there are too many nuts out there who hear ugly words as an invitation to commit ugly acts. Violent talk can lead to violent actions, and too often does.
Case in point. According to U.S. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, threats of violence against Members of Congress and their families soared 300 percent in the first six months of 2010. "I voted for you," said one called to North Carolina Congressman Heath Shuler. "If you vote for that stimulus package, I'm gonna kill you. Simple as that." Other members were threatened for voting for health care reform.
Why should we be surprised that Senators and Members are singled out for violence, when Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota warns Tea Partiers about "gangster government." When, on the floor of the House, Republican leader John Boehner compares health care reform to "Armageddon." Or when Sarah Palin urges her followers to "reload," with a map showing crosshairs on congressional districts she planned to "target."
Need more evidence? Despite the rants of right-wing talk radio hosts, most Americans cooperated with this year's census. Yet the Census Bureau reported 132 incidents where a weapon was pulled on a census worker or the worker was threatened with one. Including one woman in Yuba City, California, who aimed a shotgun - first at a census worker who walked up on her front porch, and later at police who responded.
Again, why the surprise when talk show host Erick Erickson told his listeners he would "pull out my wife's shotgun" on any census worker to "see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door." His comments were widely repeated and applauded by fellow right-wing talkers.
Still not convinced? Here's the latest example. On July 17, California Highway Patrol officers pulled 45-yr. old Byron Williams over in Oakland, California, for driving erratically. Wearing a bullet-proof vest and armed with three guns, Williams suddenly opened fire on the police. After a 12-minute firefight, Williams was subdued and arrested, only to inform officers he was on his way to San Francisco to shoot and kill staffers at the Tides Foundation.
Tides Foundation? Whoever heard of them? Nobody, except those who watch or listen to Glenn Beck, who has identified the non-profit foundation - which specializes in environmental protection, AIDS-related health care in Africa, and help with natural disasters like the recent Haiti earthquake - as one of the most secret, dangerous, socialist organizations in America. Beck painted the bull's eye on the foundation's walls. Williams figured it was his job to pull the trigger.
The rash of violent acts is proof of what former President Clinton said on April 16, the fifteenth anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma. "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. And that especially applies to talk show hosts.
Let those who deny the connection between violent words and violent acts remember Fort Hood. Immediately after Major Nidal Hasan shot and killed 13 people on the world's most populous military base, investigators concluded that his actions had been at least partially triggered by the anti-American rhetoric of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki.
Aesop never wrote a clearer fable. If Major Hasan were driven to violence by the hate speech of Anwar al-Awlaki, then surely other unstable people could be driven to violence by the hate speech of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.