Frank Rich, the paper's former drama critic turned overdramatic liberal columnist, has a sordid history of desperately linking any violent act to right-wingers, no matter how tenuous the connection. This time it was Joe Stack, the Austin pilot. Ignoring the left-wing portions of Stack's internet "manifesto," in which he quoted a Communist slogan and called President Bush a "presidential puppet," Rich claimed Stack's "frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner" in his Sunday column, "The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged."
No one knows what history will make of the present - least of all journalists, who can at best write history's sloppy first draft. But if I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn't choose the kabuki health care summit that generated all the ink and 24/7 cable chatter in Washington. I'd put my money instead on the murder-suicide of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the tax protester who flew a plane into an office building housing Internal Revenue Service employees in Austin, Tex., on Feb. 18. It was a flare with the dark afterlife of an omen.
What made that kamikaze mission eventful was less the deranged act itself than the curious reaction of politicians on the right who gave it a pass - or, worse, flirted with condoning it. Stack was a lone madman, and it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a "Tea Party terrorist." But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner. That rant inspired like-minded Americans to create instant Facebook shrines to his martyrdom. Soon enough, some cowed politicians, including the newly minted Tea Party hero Scott Brown, were publicly empathizing with Stack's credo - rather than risk crossing the most unforgiving brigade in their base.
Rich invoked Times reporter David Barstow's fear-mongering front-page February 16 profile of a Tea Party group in Idaho that ignored the actual history of the movement while lumping today's crop of anti-government protesters with white supremacists and extremists of the 1990s:
It is not glib or inaccurate to invoke Oklahoma City in this context, because the acrid stench of 1995 is back in the air. Two days before Stack's suicide mission, The Times published David Barstow's chilling, months-long investigation of the Tea Party movement. Anyone who was cognizant during the McVeigh firestorm would recognize the old warning signs re-emerging from the mists of history. The Patriot movement. "The New World Order," with its shadowy conspiracies hatched by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. Sandpoint, Idaho. White supremacists. Militias.
Barstow confirmed what the Southern Poverty Law Center had found in its report last year: the unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right that was thought to have vaporized after its Oklahoma apotheosis is making a comeback. And now it is finding common cause with some elements of the diverse, far-flung and still inchoate Tea Party movement. All it takes is a few self-styled "patriots" to sow havoc.
Such violent imagery and invective, once largely confined to blogs and talk radio, is now spreading among Republicans in public office or aspiring to it. Last year Michele Bachmann, the redoubtable Tea Party hero and Minnesota congresswoman, set the pace by announcing that she wanted "people in Minnesota armed and dangerous" to oppose Obama administration climate change initiatives. In Texas, the Tea Party favorite for governor, Debra Medina, is positioning herself to the right of the incumbent, Rick Perry - no mean feat given that Perry has suggested that Texas could secede from the union. A state sovereignty zealot, Medina reminded those at a rally that "the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots."
That's of course a quote from liberal hero Thomas Jefferson, a fact Rich surely knows but for some reason chose not to highlight.