Are we just grumpy, or have politics gotten dangerous?

There seems to be a lot of grumpiness in American politics these days. Congress is as partisan as ever. Left and right (mostly right), cable news and talk show bloviators have amped up the volume. The crowds at some congressional town hall meetings on healthcare have stopped just short of torches and pitchforks.

One can wish for calmer, more respectful public discourse. But is any of this really more dangerous than the typical hotheads at a Red Sox-Yankees game?

Yes it is, according to a report this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala.

The civil rights organization, known for its research and advocacy, sees a direct connection between all the grumbling, shouting, and threats and the rise of antigovernment radicals, specifically right-wing militias.

“This is the most significant growth we’ve seen in 10 to 12 years,” said a law enforcement official quoted by the SPLC in its special report “The Second Wave: Return of the Militias.”

“All it’s lacking is a spark,” said the official, adding it is “only a matter of time before you see threats and violence.”

Meanwhile, reports USA Today, “Federal authorities have launched an effort to detect lone attackers who may be contemplating politically charged assaults similar to the recent murders of a Kansas abortion doctor and a Holocaust museum security guard.”

What’s been dubbed the "Lone Wolf Initiative" was started shortly after President Obama's inauguration, in part because of a rising level of hate speech and surging gun sales, the newspaper reports.

The SPLC also sees a connection between the trend it details and Obama’s election, particularly in contrast with the upswell in extremist activity in the 1990s connected to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

“A key difference this time is that the federal government -- the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy -- is headed by a black man,” according to the report. “That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriot movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate. One result has been a remarkable rash of domestic terror incidents since the presidential campaign, most of them related to anger over the election of Barack Obama.”

That anger -- and in particular what some see as threatening gestures -- has been on display during what would normally be a summer lull in politics.

This week, the Secret Service detained a man outside a congressional town hall meeting in Maryland. He was carrying a sign reading “Death to Obama.” Referring to the president’s wife and daughters, the sign also read, “Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.”

And at several recent congressional town hall meetings to discuss healthcare policy, people have arrived with guns -- in some cases carried legally.

Noting the rise in hate crimes in recent years, author and broadcaster Earl Ofari Hutchinson warns: “The angry faces and the fist shaking at the healthcare town halls today could provide a fertile recruiting ground for new more vocal and visible anti-government groups…. Hate group's bank on the volatile mix of frustration, anger and hostility toward a government they feel has betrayed them, and a black president whose message of change spells socialism to them, to swell their ranks. That's a chilling prospect for Obama and all of us.”
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