Rachel Maddow: The Growing Threat Posed by Gun-Strapped Right-Wingers at Obama's Townhalls
When President Obama spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Phoenix on Monday, you‘ll recall that he was greeted by a dozen or so regular citizens, not police officers, not Secret Service officers, who were openly carrying firearms.
It‘s now been revealed that a right-wing online radio host organized the "people with guns near the president” stunt, including the man who‘s carrying an assault rifle who we pictured and talked about on this show.
But the second important update about this story is about the "not just metaphorical ties” between the open display of weaponry by protestors against the president -- in other words, the use of intimidation as a political tactic -- and the political violence in our own country‘s history, even our own country‘s recent history. We‘re now learning about actual, direct links between the gun stunt this week at President Obama‘s event in Arizona and a militia group that was convicted in the 1990s of conspiring to blow up federal buildings.
Ernest Hancock, the right-wing online radio host who carried a .9 millimeter pistol himself at the Phoenix protest and who interviewed the other people who were carrying guns -- he used to work for a group that defended a violent militia group called the Vipers. It was a group that called themselves the Viper Reserves and they formed to defend the Viper Militia.
The Viper Militia said they were opposed to what they called the "new world order.” They practiced advanced weapons training, including exploding rockets and making fertilizer bombs in a desert town about a hundred miles from the one-time home of Timothy McVeigh. Twelve members of the Viper Militia were charged in 1996 with plotting to blow up at least seven government buildings.
Federal agents seized as evidence dozens of firearms, including machine guns, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, grenades, body armor, gas masks and hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate which, of course, is the main ingredient used in the bomb that blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In the end, 11 of the Viper Militiamen were sentenced to federal prison terms, ranging from one year to six years.
In a phone interview today with this show, Mr. Hancock, who again was not part of the group but who defended them, he describes himself as having done P.R. for the group, he called the sentences for the Viper Militiamen, quote, "an injustice like you wouldn‘t believe.” He also -- in his interview with our staff -- did not deny any of the ties he -- the ties he‘s alleged to have with the Viper Militia. When we asked him about convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Mr. Hancock told us, quote, "I don‘t know which role he played. I know he got blamed.”
So, when a dozen people openly display firearms near the president -- again, not police officers, not Secret Service officers, but citizens, and they‘re organized by someone with this kind of backgrounds, what‘s the next thing that we talk about in our political discussion in this country?
Joining us now is "New York Times” columnist Frank Rich. His most recent piece on Sunday gives some historical context to the gun-toting protestors that are showing up at these town hall events.
Mr. Rich, nice to see you.
FRANK RICH, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST: Nice to see you.
MADDOW: In your column this weekend, you talked about similarities between the political climate today and the political climate in the early ‘60s -- of course, with looming large in that political climate the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963.
Were you intending to make that explicit allegory because you‘re worried about assassination attempts?
RICH: You know, the truth is, I‘ve been worried for sometime even before the events surrounding these health care town halls. It began during the campaign where people were shouting treason and worse about Obama at Palin rallies, and essentially, no one would -- in the Republican Party -- would condemn it. There were people, you know, appearing in sort of Nazi regalia and all the rest of it, and it‘s just been stepping up ever since then.
The Department of Homeland Security, as you know, released a report in April talking about a rise in 1990s-like militia activity on the far-right and had various, you know, incidents, including the George Tiller killing, the shoot-up of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and now, we have this stuff going on at these town halls.
So, I think we have to worry about right-wing political violence,
whether we have to hope and pray really that the president is well-
protected, but doesn‘t necessarily manifest itself in a presidential
assassination. It can manifest itself in things like Oklahoma City or what
as you were just talking about -- what was contemplated apparently in Phoenix only a year or two later.
MADDOW: I have to say that I am -- we‘ve been talking about this a lot on the show because of what‘s been happening at these town halls, because I think it has been shocking. And to see people then turning up with guns -- especially, people turning up with guns in conjunction with threats that reference earlier acts of political violence in the United States -- I‘m thinking specifically of that young man at the New Hampshire event holding the sign with the saying on it that McVeigh was wearing on his shirt the day he was arrested after Oklahoma City -- after the bombing. We‘ve been talking about this stuff because you have to, but I‘m uncomfortable talking about it.
RICH: I am, too, and I‘m uncomfortable writing about it.
RICH: And I‘m just old enough, I was a kid, I remember I woke up in 1963 to the horrible events in Dallas. Even as a kid, I happened to be growing up in Washington, D.C., it was palatable to me all this hate talk about Kennedy and this sort of crazy fear.
Then it was the John Burke‘s Society. They were worried that the government was trying to fluoridate the water and poison everybody. They thought that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist tool.
But there were a lot of threats. There was a lot of stuff going on that in tone resembles this.
And I think we have to try to tread a cautious line here but we have to be vigilant about it. I think we have a problem. This has been going on for too many months and has started with the ascent of Barack Obama.
And it always seems to happen when there‘s a new liberal group taking over. It‘s not coincidence that the militias started up again in the 1990s when Clinton came in or when Kennedy came in, the right-wing stuff in the early ‘60s. It‘s now, of course, complicated by the fact that we have an African-American -- which is even more of an affront, unfortunately, to some of these people.
MADDOW: I have incredible faith in the Secret Service and I have -- I have incredible faith in the professionals whose job it is to actually keep not only politicians safe but also to keep federal building safe. I think that we have -- we have great security officers in this country and I think that they -- one of the things that we can be sort of proud of and sure of is the professionalism of that class of people involved in law enforcement.
And, therefore, I worry about and wonder about what citizens who aren‘t law enforcement officers, who aren‘t directly responsible for keeping other people safe, what responsibility we can all take, us in the media and just us as citizens in trying to change the tone, and trying ratchet it down, and trying to make it a safer atmosphere.
RICH: Well, I think we all have a role to play and I also think that politicians have a role to play. And it‘s shocking to me that very few Republican leaders have really condemned this kind of activity. In fact, they‘ve sort of encouraged it. Well, it‘s the Second Amendment right and so on.
Where does that get us? While I have the same faith you do in the people who protect us, the Holocaust Museum was not some obscure little back water. It was very understandably a well-protected site in the center of Washington, D.C., and an 80 something-year-old man could go in there and create havoc and commit murder.
MADDOW: Yes. You also said in your column this Sunday that the twisted distortions about "death panels” and federal conspiracies to pull the plug on grandma are too unhinged from the reality of any legislation. These bogus fears are psychological proxies for bigger traumas.
Do you mean that health care is essentially -- essentially, a vehicle to get into much deeper pathologies and much -- things that were much more irrational they‘re upset about?
RICH: Yes. I don‘t think health care, per se, but the -- but I think that this talking about death panels, this bogus stuff, has ratcheted up for people who are automatically paranoid about the federal government, feel it‘s out to get them -- it‘s now become a proxy for everything they don‘t like about the government, everything they don‘t like about a liberal-leaning administration, everything they don‘t like about to change. And that‘s another thing that‘s going on now.
There‘s -- it‘s not just the Obama brand of change. We‘ve gone through this economic turmoil.
RICH: People are frightened. Manufacturing industries have collapsed. My own industry is sort of half-collapsed. And so, people are on edge anyway. And these town halls seem to be a handy way to vent.
MADDOW: Frank Rich, "New York Times” columnist and very welcome guest on this show -- thanks very much for coming in.
RICH: Thank you.
MADDOW: Here‘s the quote of the day, "I haven‘t done anything legally wrong.” That was Senator John Ensign‘s hearty defense today of his affair with an underling who is married to another of his underlings -- which that affair featured getting that couple‘s son a job with the Republican Party and paying the mistress nearly 100 grand after the wacachika wacachika was all done. But just to be clear -- John Ensign wants you to know, he did nothing legally wrong. That story is coming up.