Did Glenn Beck's rhetoric inspire violence?

Glenn Beck's attacks on the Tides Foundation are being linked to a heavily-armed man's attempt to assassinate the progressive organization's employees. Rhetoric has consequences, critics say.

Mark Welsh/The Arlington Heights Daily Herald/AP
Glenn Beck spreads his message at the Sears Centre, Saturday Sept. 18 in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Critics say Beck's rhetoric inspired violence.

Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, who’s honed being provocative – even outrageous at times – to a fine and lucrative art, is the focus of criticism for inciting violence.

Specifically, his dozens of comments attacking the Tides Foundation are being linked to the attempt by a heavily-armed man to assassinate employees at the San Francisco-based foundation, which funds environmental, human rights, and other progressive projects. The attack in July was thwarted in a shoot-out with police in which two officers were wounded.

Since then, alleged attacker Byron Williams has said in jailhouse interviews that he wanted to “start a revolution.” He says Beck was not the direct cause of his turning violent. But he does say: “I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind.”

At various times, Beck has referred to Tides as “bullies” and “thugs” whose mission is to “warp your children's brains and make sure they know how evil capitalism is.” More recently, Beck (who describes himself as a “progressive hunter”) has warned the foundation “I’m coming for you.”

This has drawn criticism from various quarters.

'People are turning to guns'

Referring directly to Beck, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence issued a statement this week: “Too many people are turning to guns to remedy their grievances. And they are being fueled by rhetoric from leaders of the extreme gun rights movement.”

Some law enforcement officials agree.

"The Becks of the world are people who are venting their opinions and it is inflammatory, it generates a lot of emotion and generates in some people overreaction that apparently happened in the California case," Rich Roberts of the International Union of Police Associations, which represents some 500 local police unions, told the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America. "Inflammatory speech has a tendency to trigger those kinds of emotions."

Speaking of the alleged attack on the Tides Foundation by Byron Williams, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said in an e-mail to Media Matters: “It is important that everyone in public life, whether on the right or on the left, realize that words have consequences.”

Fox News advertisers pressured

Tides itself is calling on advertisers to drop their business with Fox News because of what it charges has been “hate speech leading to violence.”

“While we may agree to disagree about the role our citizens and our government should play in promoting social justice and the common good, there should be no disagreement about what constitutes integrity and professionalism and responsibility in discourse – even when allowing for and encouraging contending diverse opinions intelligently argued,” Tides founder and CEO Drummond Pike wrote. “This is not a partisan issue. It's an American issue. No one, left, right or center, wants to see another Oklahoma City.”

To some observers, the episode involving Glenn Beck and alleged attacker Byron Wilson is reminiscent of the 1991 film “The Fisher King.”

“What was prescient about the film is that the main character, Jack Lucas, played by Jeff Bridges, is an arrogant, self-serving, egocentric shock jock talk radio host who enjoys baiting his callers and indulging in personal ideological comments that often have no basis in fact,” writes Mark Axelrod, professor of comparative literature at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., on Huffington Post. “The upshot of all of that ‘free speech’ is that an off-handed, on air comment prompts one of his regular callers to commit multiple murders at a popular Manhattan bar.”

None of this seems to have turned Beck away from rhetoric that implies violence.

Railing about a hypothetical situation in which children would have to take flu vaccine or be removed from their families, Beck said this week that his response would be “meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson,” a reference to the gun manufacturer.

History of violent political speech

The implication of violence in political speech is as old as when lawmakers beat each other with canes on the floor of the House of Representatives. And it’s bipartisan.

GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada has suggested that there might have to be armed “Second Amendment remedies” for a Congress controlled by Democrats.

On a radio show the other day, President Obama warned that a Republican takeover of Congress would mean “hand-to-hand combat” for the next two years.

At a Democratic fundraiser in Minnesota, Vice President Joe Biden said, “If I hear one more Republican tell me about balancing the budget, I am going to strangle them.”

But he quickly added, “To the press, that's a figure of speech.”

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