After Austin

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Joseph Stack, the Austin, Texas suicide plane-bomber, another example of our homegrown terrorism problem, left a suicide note that was an odd admixture of left and right wing resentment, its most glaring characteristic a seething anger toward government and that most obviously directed toward the Internal Revenue Service. No one will ever completely understand what drove Stack to the level of confusion and depravity which led him to burn down his own home and fly an airplane into the side of a federal office building, but I would argue that the increasingly strident, even hysterical language of what is becoming mainstream media-the frothing, crazed demagoguery of the Glen Becks, Sean Hannitys, Rush Limbaughs and the hundreds of petty imitators who have taken to the television and radio airwaves-made some small contribution to the terrible events in Austin. I don't think it's a coincidence that Stack used the same imagery of flesh being pulled from his body to describe the purported evil of big government as that bandied about with little evidence of self-consciousness by Glen Beck when he makes his bizarre denunciations of the coming socialist apocalypse initiated by Barack "Hussein" Obama. Decades of anti-government rhetoric is bearing toxic fruit with acts such as this (and its more devastating predecessor in domestic terrorism, the April 19, 1995 destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City).

As the son and nephew of U.S. civil servants, I have always taken offense at the hostility, suspicion, and the often too sanguinary rhetoric directed at government bureaucracies. These are places after all that are staffed by our fellow citizens, our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, and our children. We and our family members are the "they" and "them" of big and little government. In my experience, civil servants have been exemplary in performing often thankless tasks with courtesy and integrity. In fact, in answer to the oft-repeated rhetorical device of the health care reform dead-enders: you betcha, I would rather have a government bureaucrat making decisions about my health care than a private-industry bureaucrat at a for-profit insurance conglomerate whose only motivation is to keep me from getting procedures that might "impact" a quarterly bottom line.

It's hard to say what responsibility the pundits and demagogues of the modern media need to assume for the positions they take and the rhetoric they deploy. And here I will freely admit that I am mostly talking about the right-wing variant of the cable "personality." Chris Matthews can be a barking terrier of an interrogator; Keith Olbermann occasionally vanishes behind a cloud of "How dare you, sir" pomposity; and Rachel Maddow, well, criminy, she's practically pleasant in every possible way. But there are really no comparative figures from the alleged left to match the vitriol and disinformation being regularly dispensed by conservative commentators. Seldom are they called to attend to higher civic, even minimal journalistic, virtues.

Virtually none of the "experts" who cheered America into an "elective war" in Iraq have been held responsible for their erroneous reporting and tragically broken thinking. Indeed the same mis-commentators enjoy the same column width in U.S. newspapers and websites; some have even found more prominent placement. Likewise the contemporary Coughlins and assorted radio and cable crazies of our era probably have not been and cannot be muzzled without the Constitution taking a severe beating of its own. But that doesn't mean that the news directors and owners of the networks and cable and radio operations which employ them cannot step in themselves and insist on some basic restraint and journalistic responsibility or even that these talk-radio and -cable hosts themselves cannot understand their own culpability in events like Austin and take some personal responsibility to police their own language.

The cavalier demonizing of federal employees and government must end. The wild circulation of rumor and misinformation should end. Drudge-Report style perpetual info disgorging is not journalism, it is rumor mongering, but it is unfortunately becoming a standard accepted by media outlets that by all other appearances are indistinguishable from real news operations that check sources and gather actual facts. Too many viewers and listeners, who have grown to believe that what is being reported must have been properly vetted by someone at sometime, do not understand that what they are watching or hearing is not necessarily real news. That can have damaging consequences when the important social policies of the day are debated-bad enough-but it can also contribute to whatever the tipping point happens to be for those unstable and potentially dangerous actors at large among us. Free speech does not mean we who use it for a living are free of responsibility for the things we say.