This January, I spent several days in Pittsburgh investigating the Poplawski case and seeking to learn more about what really motivated him to kill three police officers. The research was for a chapter in my book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, which comes out at the end of the month. I learned quite a bit ...
"Rich, like myself, loved Glenn Beck," Poplawski's best friend Eddie Perkovic told me during a long interview in his narrow rowhouse on the steep hill running down to the Allegheny ... Perkovic and his mom -- who also had a close relationship with the accused cop-killer, still awaiting trial -- told me that for months Poplawski had been obsessed with an idea -- frequently discussed by Beck, including in ads for his sponsor Food Insurance -- of the need to stockpile food and even toilet paper for a societal breakdown. Poplawski was also convinced that paper money would become worthless -- another claim given credence by the Fox News Channel host, particularly in close connection with his frequent shilling for the now-under-investigation gold-coin peddler Goldline International.
And there was another idea that not only worried Poplawski but which Perkovic and his mom still swore by in January 2010 -- despite widespread debunkings in the mainstream media -- that the government had established a gulag of what Perkovic called "Guantanamo camps" here in the United States, for the purpose of arresting and detaining law-abiding Americans.
Bunch goes on to claim that Poplawski was a fan of hate sites like Stormfront as well. Washington Post scribe Dana Milbank, who has just come out with his own book out on Beck, also mentions his influence on Poplawski briefly in a recent interview with Howard Kurtz.
These connections aren't entirely new. More than a year ago, some observers noted that Poplawski apparently posted Youtube footage of Beck talking about supposed FEMA concentration camps with Ron Paul. (Other scurrilous lefties, meanwhile, suggested that Beck's rhetoric had gotten at least as deranged as anything you might find on a far-right website like Stormfront.) But by and large, media accounts of the shooting ignored the Beck connection.
Which raises the obvious question here: Does Beck, or whoever decided to give him a platform at FOX News, have some responsibility for what his words may have inspired an accused lone gunman to do? Bunch acknowledges that "individuals like Poplawski are ultimately responsible for their warped action." But he then asks what is the responsibility of talkers like Beck, "who now jack up their ratings ... by speaking of violence or irrational conspiracies -- especially when the evidence mounts every day that these ill-conceived words broadcast from coast-to-coast are motivating America's most unglued?"
Anyone who writes in a public forum, I suspect, has a view on this question that is likely to be ... nuanced. We've all had phone calls from a certain kind of fan, one whose enthusiastic endorsement of your work make you wonder if you shouldn't reconsider, or at least clarify, your position. A couple experiences like that, generally, are all it takes to make you wary of claiming responsibility for how other people interpret your work.
And I guess my initial response is to say that the problem with "America's most unglued" is that they are always easily motivated by something. That's what makes them unglued in the first place: their ability to ignore most of the world around them, while seizing on messages they hear from Glenn Beck, a track on the White Album, or instructions issued from a demon possessing the neighbor's dog.
But of course one of those things is not like the others. If there was a demon possessing the neighbor's labrador retriever, David Berkowitz was the only one who heard it. And whatever Charles Manson heard in the song "Helter Skelter," the Beatles didn't put it there. By contrast, thanks to FOX's patronage, Beck has an audience of a few million people. And if Poplawski ignored Beck's occasional disclaimers that we ought to follow the path of non-violence, well ... it's not like he invented Beck's warnings of societal breakdown.
Too, Beck isn't acting in a vacuum here. Ignoring everyday reality used to be the exlusive province of America's most unglued. But Fox News has given millions of Americans a chance to inhabit a different reality ... one in which our president may be a socialist, and the New Black Panther Party menaces us at every turn.
Here's the thing, though. Even if Poplawski is convicted ... even if he tries a "Glenn Beck made me do it" defense ... even if another member of Beck's audience goes on a shooting spree ... nothing will change. Lefties are allergic to tinkering with the First Amendment, and rightfully so. And if we ever overcame that allergy -- if we ever really did try to hold fearmongerers like Beck to account -- that's when you'd really see right-wing paranoia on display.