THE LIMITS OF RESPONSIBILITY…. We talked earlier about Byron Williams, who launched a violent scheme after having been inspired by some of his favorite deranged media personalities, including Glenn Beck. I tried to be careful about not holding Beck directly responsible for Williams’ shootings, but Kevin Drum argues I still went too far.

Beck is a conspiratorial loon, but he’s just not responsible for a guy like Williams. Full stop. No more than environmentalists are responsible if some crackpot takes a shot at the CEO of Exxon or Keith Olbermann is responsible if one tosses a bomb onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

If Beck were advocating violence, that would be one thing. But he isn’t and hasn’t. Ever. Fox ought to take Beck off the air, but they should do it because he’s crazy and promotes ignorance, not because Byron Williams says he learned about the Tides Foundation from him.

Oddly enough, I find this pretty persuasive, too. I can appreciate how wishy-washy this sounds, but I’m genuinely conflicted on the point.

I’d love for Beck, Limbaugh, and others like them to lower the rhetorical temperature, and I’m inclined to believe some of the violent incidents we’ve seen might be less likely if they did. But I also believe lunatics who commit crimes are responsible for their own actions. Unless Beck or someone like him actually starts recommending violence, there’s no real, meaningful, direct culpability.

But if you’ve seen/heard Beck’s show, you know his message dances along a dangerous line. Atrios also had a compelling take.

I think there are necessary subtleties when talking about the issue of whether crazy people or the people who inspire them are responsible for their actions. It isn’t black and white, and generally I choose “crazy person” or their mental illness as the responsible party. Having said that, it is the case that Beck really is getting close to, and crossing, that line by using obvious violence-endorsing rhetoric even as he disavows the violence part.

That’s exactly right. Beck’s message, in effect, goes like this: don’t commit acts of violence, but there’s a dangerous, secret cabal trying to deliberately destroy your country. Don’t commit acts of violence, but the future of civilization is at risk. Don’t commit acts of violence, but Thomas Jefferson talked about the value of spilling tyrants’ blood. Don’t commit acts of violence, but Nazi/Soviet/Jihadist forces want to take away your children’s future. Don’t commit acts of violence, but someone needs to do something or we’re all doomed.

Don’t commit acts of violence, but don’t forget the importance of “reading between the lines” when it comes to Beck’s rhetoric and his underlying message. And at that point, Beck provides a detailed list of all the evil, nefarious folks who will crush your country and destroy everything you hold dear — but don’t commit acts of violence.

I know Kevin’s right. Really, I do. But to augment an old metaphor, I feel like Beck is close to the point at which he’s in a crowded theater shouting, “Fire! But try not to trample anyone. There’s a fire right here in this very theater that may kill you! But there’s no need to make a mad dash for the exits.”

Do those caveats absolve Beck of responsibility? Probably, yes. If asked, Beck could honestly say, “I specifically encouraged people not to trample others,” and he’d be right. But if it seems unsatisfying, it’s because the rest of the context makes it hard for Beck to wash his hands of the disasters left in his wake.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.