After Jerad and Amanda Miller killed two police officers and a civilian in Las Vegas this past June, we learned what set them off from his Facebook page. Jerad was a Cliven Bundy acolyte, but got kicked out of Bundy’s mini-militia for being a convicted felon. He was a Benghazi conspiracy theorist who hated the Affordable Care Act, but he’d also come to believe that law enforcement and IRS officers were agents of a fascist takeover of the country.
Needless to say, conservatives didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that right-wing agitprop had stoked his paranoia, even if he ultimately snapped because he was out of his mind.
But it was always a completely reasonable suggestion, and several prominent conservatives legitimized it when they applied the same line of reasoning to Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who killed two New York City police officers this weekend.
Brinsley had a criminal past and mental illness. He had convinced himself that police officers in America were unappointed executioners, putting down young black men without remorse, and that black men should get revenge for deadly police misconduct. If Jerad Miller and Ismaaiyl Brinsley weren’t both insane—if American law enforcement agents were actually soldiers at war with the citizenry—then their turns to violence would make some sense. And you can even understand why—in a news environment saturated by coverage of police officers escaping prosecution for killing young, unarmed black men—a young black man with a screw loose might perceive it all as a battle of attrition.
Episodes like these are extremely rare, but in an open society, they are also inescapable. Politics can be contentious, and at the fringes that contention can spill over into delusion and violence.
If your antipathy to government assistance or gun regulation metastasizes into a paranoid conviction that government agents will enter your home, confiscate your weapons, and imprison your family in FEMA camps, you might take preventive action. If your anger about racial disparities in the criminal justice system metastasizes into the belief that police officers are systematically murdering young black men, you might try to pick them off first.
But that’s where the implicit comparison conservatives drew between episodes like the Miller killings and the police assassinations in New York broke down. Or rather, when conservatives tried to bring politics into their argument, they had to dream up rhetorical analogies that don’t exist.
On the radical fringe of the left—in communist and anarchist propaganda—you might find the kind of revolutionary rhetoric that confirmed Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s suspicions. But that’s not where conservatives went looking.
“We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has “blood on his hands,” and has fomented an open police revolt against the mayor’s office.
If Lynch’s actions weren’t such a troubling threat to civilian control structure, they would be comical. It's not as if de Blasio expressed solidarity with the reactionaries trying to whip up violence in peaceful protests. His big rhetorical faux pas was to admit that he’s taught his biracial son Dante to be “very careful” in encounters with law enforcement; to reveal himself to be a good parent, and restate a blindingly obvious fact about racial disparities in policing; and to say that the peaceful protesters—not the violent fringe—have a decent point.
Obama has expressed similar sympathies with peaceful protesters and black communities where distrust of law enforcement runs high. But he’s constantly prefaced those sympathies with severe condemnations of violence and stressed that the problems in these communities can be solved without radical change. The organizing principle of the protest movement is a decidedly non-radical complaint—that the criminal justice system shouldn't break down any time the person involved in a homicide is a police officer.
Liberal political leaders in America don’t lionize fringe figures. Republicans treated Cliven Bundy like a martyr until an embarrassingly predictable racist outburst made him politically radioactive. The right wing demands this kind of genuflection; the left does not.
When Obama or de Blasio or Al Sharpton says young black men should consider Second Amendment remedies to their Fifth Amendment grievances, then we can condemn liberals for engaging in irresponsible rhetoric. The irony is that in attempting to hold a mirror up to liberalism, Giuliani, Lynch, and other likeminded critics became the only mainstream political figures in the country to serve up reckless rhetoric since Michael Brown was killed four months ago.