Lord have mercy. These days, a man can’t even strap on a bunch of explosives, take a network building hostage, and get himself shot dead by police without touching off a partisan slap fest.
Before I fired up my computer this morning, I assumed that conservative partisans would have been busy little beavers during the night. Sure enough, not one but two e-mails awaited me, crowing about James Lee’s environmental extremism. Since then, I’ve run across plenty more Web posts with headlines dubbing Lee a “Violent Liberal Environmentalist” or a “Liberal Ecoterrorist” or otherwise crowing about his not-a-conservative status.
I was more surprised, I confess, by a post at the liberal blog Think Progress, detailing how Lee’s online manifesto “Echoes Anti-immigrant Groups’ Malthusian Screed,” then walking readers through the sinister phenomenon of nativism’s greenwashing. It’s not that I think liberals are necessarily above that sort of opportunistic bashing. But linking Lee’s behavior to an ugly right-wing ideology took considerably more creativity and chutzpah than the right’s gloating about Lee’s fondness for An Inconvenient Truth.
So, if we were forced to pick sides between James J. Lee: left-wing enviroradical and James Lee: militant right-wing nativist, the data points favor Option A.
But, to state the obvious, we’re not forced to pick sides. Lee wasn’t an ideologue driven by his own political extremism to do something drastic. He was, first and foremost, batshit crazy. We’re talking about someone who so lost touch with reality that he thought the best way to save the planet was to force a television network to run game shows promoting the ideals of “human sterilization and infertility.” (Can’t you just envision the “Jeopardy” spin-off? Thanks so much, Alex! I’ll take chemical castration for $400.)
Far from any sort of winger—left or right—Lee was a deeply messed up guy who lost his job, spent some time homeless, and suffered deaths in the family that, his brother-in-law told Fox News, turned him into a “darker type of character.” Unable to pull himself together, he sank into a pit of sociopathic despair that made him simultaneously loathe his own species and believe that the road to salvation lay in a better grade of cable programming.
Indeed, by the time Lee grabbed his guns and his homemade bombs and wandered into the lobby of the Discovery Channel building, he clearly had no clue what it was he was really after. As Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger told CNN, "At times during the negotiations, he was calm, but I wouldn't call him lucid. The conversation was indicative to me he was dealing with some mental issues.”
Like all good ideological warriors, I’m happy to throw around the terms right-wing nutter and left-wing nutter early and often. But one case where I think they should be more conservatively applied (no pun intended) is when we’re talking about people who are literally—as opposed to figuratively, functionally, or strategically—nuts. As a political bludgeon, Lee doesn’t even rise to the level of James W. vonn Brunn, the elderly, paranoid anti-Semite who shot up the Holocaust Museum, or of Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. In both those cases, you can argue endlessly about the degree to which the mentally ill perpetrator’s actions were influenced by his swimming in a toxic sea of like-minded haters. But Lee wasn’t part of some broader community whose goal it is to wipe humanity from the face of the earth. As far as we can tell, no one listened to his rantings or swapped conspiracy theories with him. He was a lone crazy who had to actually pay homeless people to take part in his protests.
Admittedly, it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to score points for your political team by trying to wrap every disturbed individual to come down the turnpike around the opposition’s neck. But, no matter our affiliation, we need to be able to recognize real insanity when we see it.
Sometimes, a nut is just a nut.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor for The New Republic.