House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently invoked the grim specter of political violence, arguing that today’s angry political climate could cause people to cross the line from heated talk to dangerous actions.
Republicans sharply rejected her claim, with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) saying Pelosi is “living in another world.” Others charged that the California Democrat herself stoked emotions by labeling some health reform protesters “un-American.”
But it’s not just Pelosi who is worried. In interviews with POLITICO, five former Secret Service, FBI and CIA officers say that they, too, are concerned that today’s climate of supercharged political vitriol could lead to violence.
And this week, the FBI said that it is investigating whether anti-government sentiment played a role in the death of a U.S. Census worker who was found hanged from a tree in rural Kentucky, because the body had the word “fed” scrawled on the chest — though authorities say there are too many unanswered questions at this point to rule the case a homicide or a hate crime. Beyond any specific case, some of the experts see the political moment as a part of a larger trend that’s been developing since the mid-’90s — dating back to GOP attacks on President Bill Clinton and continuing through the left’s sharp criticism of President George W. Bush, who was called a “liar” and “loser” by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
This summer’s protests against health care included an episode where freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.) was hanged in effigy. Anti-energy bill protesters tarred and feathered an effigy of Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.). Last Halloween, a homeowner in liberal West Hollywood hanged in effigy Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at his home. There’s a big difference, of course, between a person who shouts at a congressman at a town hall and a person who would do something much more violent. But security experts say that the shouting incidents and other angry moments in recent weeks serve as indicators of an increase in political rage in the culture. That rage comes against a backdrop of enormous changes in American life. The United States suffered a humiliating economic collapse that threatens its long-term position as the world’s most important economy, with a staggering 9.7 percent unemployment rate. President Barack Obama made several controversial federal interventions into the private sector. At the same time, the country has elected its first African-American president at a moment when dramatic demographic changes mean that the groups now considered racial minorities will account for the majority of the U.S. population by the year 2042.
That kind of sweeping social change can be deeply unsettling.
“Times of threat bring increased aggression,” said Jerrold Post, a CIA veteran who founded the agency’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior during his 21-year career at headquarters in Langley, Va.
“And the whole country’s under threat now, with the economic difficulties and political polarization,” said Post, now a professor of psychiatry at The George Washington University. “The need to have someone to blame is really strong in human psychology. And once you have someone to blame, especially when there’s a call to action, some see it as a time for heroic action.”