Playing with fire

PLAYING WITH FIRE…. A week ago, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) appeared on “Meet the Press” and was asked about threats of “violence against the government” by right-wing extremists. Coburn blamed U.S. officials: “Well, I’m troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government, but we’ve earned it.”

It led the NYT‘s Frank Rich to argue that the right is playing with fire.

I have been writing about the simmering undertone of violence in our politics since October, when Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential candidate of a major political party, said nothing to condemn Obama haters shrieking “Treason!,” “Terrorist!” and “Off with his head!” at her rallies. As vacation beckons, I’d like to drop the subject, but the atmosphere keeps getting darker.

Coburn’s implicit rationalization for far-right fanatics bearing arms at presidential events — the government makes them do it! — cannot stand. He’s not a radio or Fox News bloviator paid a fortune to be outrageous; he’s a card-carrying member of the United States Senate. On Monday — the day after he gave a pass to those threatening violence — a dozen provocateurs with guns, at least two of them bearing assault weapons, showed up for Obama’s V.F.W. speech in Phoenix. Within hours, another member of Congress — Phil Gingrey of Georgia — was telling Chris Matthews on MSNBC that as long as brandishing guns is legal, he, too, saw no reason to discourage Americans from showing up armed at public meetings.

In April the Department of Homeland Security issued a report, originally commissioned by the Bush administration, on the rising threat of violent right-wing extremism. It was ridiculed by conservatives, including the Republican chairman, Michael Steele, who called it “the height of insult.” Since then, a neo-Nazi who subscribed to the anti-Obama “birther” movement has murdered a guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington, and an anti-abortion zealot has gunned down a doctor in a church in Wichita, Kan.

This month the Southern Poverty Law Center, the same organization that warned of the alarming rise in extremist groups before the Oklahoma City bombing, issued its own report. A federal law enforcement agent told the center that he hadn’t seen growth this steep among such groups in 10 to 12 years. “All it’s lacking is a spark,” he said.

Rich’s pieces comes on the heels of a column from conservative David Frum, who accused the “reckless right” of courting violence. “Nobody has been hurt so far. We can all hope that nobody will be,” Frum said. “But firearms and politics never mix well. They mix especially badly with a third ingredient: the increasingly angry tone of incitement being heard from right-of-center broadcasters…. We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric. If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic — if he were those things, somebody should shoot him. But he is not.”