Fear Itself | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Fear Itself

click to enlarge After the Stanton Heights shooting, some mourners paid their respects at the city's police memorial on the North Side.
After the Stanton Heights shooting, some mourners paid their respects at the city's police memorial on the North Side.

All across Pittsburgh, there have been moments of silence and prayer for the three officers killed in Stanton Heights on Saturday: Eric Kelly, Stephen J. Mayhle and Paul J. Sciullo II.

There have been, and will continue to be, tributes to these officers, and the courage they donned as regularly, and as easily, as they donned their uniforms. Others can speak to that bravery far better than I.

For my part, I wish the moment of silence had started earlier, and lasted longer. Because one of the countless sorrows here, I think, is that sorrow is all we have in common.

Already these tragic deaths have been tallied in a culture war, one which began long before this weekend.

By Saturday afternoon, KDKA Radio had already incorporated news snippets from the shooting into station promos. And talk-radio host Fred Honsberger was already arguing about gun rights.

The alleged shooter, Richard Poplawski, had been kicked out of the Marines during boot camp, Honsberger said. "[T]hat is a dishonorable discharge," he insisted. "So ... according to the law -- any person with a dishonorable discharge is not eligible to buy a gun."

Actually, it's still not clear what kind of discharge Poplawski received: The Marines aren't saying. But Honsberger and several of his callers cited the allegation as proof that "It goes back to the old bumper sticker: When you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns."

So there we are. The debate about what happened in Stanton Heights, and how to prevent it from happening again, has been reduced to bumper-stickers (not to mention denunciations of any lawyer who might choose to defend Poplawski). And conservatives are already indulging in the anxieties that may have contributed to the shooting: According to his friends, Poplawski apparently feared that Barack Obama's administration was going to take away his guns.

Over on the online forum of the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association, for example, gun-enthusiasts mixed sorrow and compassion with fear:

how long will it be before some of us are faced with the choice of give up our guns or resist? ... how many scenes like we saw today will play out nationwide?

Of course, you can find people who will say anything on talk radio or online. (The PaFOA has, in fact, acknowledged that Poplawski may have participated in its discussion groups -- under the name "Rwhiteman.") But the FBI reports that in November 2008 -- the month Obama was elected -- requests for firearm background checks nationwide leapt by 50 percent over the previous year. They have been higher every month since, usually by 20 or 30 percent.

Somehow, I doubt there's been a sudden upsurge in the popularity of skeet-shooting.

The very morning of the Stanton Heights shooting, in fact, The New York Times featured a column by Charles Blow noting that conservatives are becoming increasingly "apocalyptic. They feel isolated, angry, betrayed and besieged. And some of their 'leaders' seem to be trying to mold them into militias." Blow cited numerous examples, including Glenn Beck -- the Fox News talker who recently warned that maybe, just maybe, FEMA was building "concentration camps" to house Republicans.

Could such rhetoric be encouraging violent acts like the one in Stanton Heights? Poplawski reportedly frequented far-right Web sites and is reportedly a fan of radio host Alex Jones, who traffics in conspiracy theories. And for years, conservatives denounced sex in the movies, and violence in gangsta-rap music (which also preaches a reliance on guns and a radical mistrust of government authority). The claim is that, while speech is free, some speech debases our culture, with disastrous effects on individual behavior.

Some lefties are suggesting a similar theory here. As the Web site Crooks and Liars puts it, "there's a clear, common-sense connection between the paranoiac fearmongering that has passed for right-wing rhetoric ... and violence like that in Pittsburgh."

I'm not entirely convinced. For one thing, I didn't think that the lyrics of Marilyn Manson caused the mass shooting at Columbine, something many conservatives took as an article of faith. For another, I actually interviewed Alex Jones once, and found him oddly likable. Jones renounced violent tactics -- he thought the people who espoused them were most likely undercover feds -- and he seemed harmless enough. Just before we began talking about his suspicion that 9/11 was a government plot, I could hear him over the phone telling his young daughter, "Daddy has to work now."

But of course, I'd been hearing Jones on a low-wattage FM station outside of Meadville, Pa. I never thought anyone would give him a national platform.

Yet there he was on Fox News last month, a guest on Andrew Napolitano's Freedom Watch. "[T]here is a new world order," Jones warned, one that "will be run by the very banks that are collapsing society by design."

So if Poplawski did confuse conspiracy-theories with reality, he may not be alone. I mean, I've never heard Jones endorse a theory crazier than Beck's "concentration camp" speculations. (Beck himself later recanted the theory.) Yet Beck is Fox's rising star, with an audience of 2.3 million.

Look, we lefties are capable of knee-jerk hatred too. We're just as capable of assuming the worst about people in the other party. (Although we're more likely to threaten to leave the country than to "take it back.") That's part of what it is to be human. But maybe we have so many lone gunmen partly because our culture, especially on the right, so often encourages hair-trigger rage.

On the day of the shooting, Honsberger himself took time to denounce "loony-tune people" who showed up in Stanton Heights during the TV coverage, "waving to the camera" and saying, "Do you see me on TV?"

"There is a defect in our society," he concluded.

No doubt. And maybe those people are a symptom. But they aren't the only ones using the airwaves to express contempt for those we place in positions of authority. And of the messages being put out, "do you see me on TV?" seems like one of the least harmful.

Contributions to support the families of Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle, and Paul Sciullo II can be sent to:

The Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union
1338 Chartiers Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15220

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