The relationship between media personalities like Glenn Beck and growing reports of Christian militias, angry Tea Party mobs, and threats of political violence seems readily apparent. But pinning down the concrete links between them is more difficult. John Hamilton, reporting for the watchdog group Media Matters, has  nailed down the connection. Hamilton published a hair-raising account this week of his jailhouse conversation with Byron Williams, a California man who set out in July to kill staff at Bay Area offices of the Tides Foundation and the ACLU. 

Williams instead ended up in a shootout with California Highway Patrol officers that left two police officers injured. Williams was hit with five bullets, but the bulletproof vest he wore saved his life. Today, he is awaiting trial in a Santa Rita jail. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of premeditated attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. 

Hamilton spoke with Williams in jail. He sussed out the roots of Williams’ fears, and what led him to his planned shooting rampage.

Hamilton paints a picture of a vulnerable, flawed and crazed man. Williams was a beaten down 45-year-old, out-of-work carpenter who spent his empty days watching television and researching what his mom called "the shadow government" on the Internet. In other words, he was a prime candidate to swallow Beck’s incendiary, conspiratorial views on the perils of "big government" and "socialized medicine" and "Obamacare" and cap and trade legislation whole.

Beck, perhaps by the very nature of his program, with his vivid, unhinged screaming about the imminent apocalypse, attracts conspiracy theorists who take his programming seriously. His shows prey on working class people’s legitimate discontent and anxiety and pump them up full of bloated paranoia about the creeping, threatening dangers that lurk in the shadows, and then gives those dangers names: Barack Obama, George Soros, immigrants, Van Jones.

Beck doesn’t outright encourage violence–Williams is often angry that Beck doesn’t go far enough–but he eagerly stokes the fears that drive men like Williams to it. And so Beck has been able to weasel his way out of taking any responsibility for the climate of fear he’s helped create.

Beck shrugs off responsibility for the violence he’s wrought, and uses demands that he be accountable for it as more fodder for stoking rage:

"I expose the Tides Foundation and show you what it is, and I am now responsible for terrorist attacks?" asked an incredulous Beck on his radio program, 11 days after the shootout. Co-host Pat Gray called such charges "unbelievable," and Beck said: "If you don’t think that they will use anything, they will. They absolutely will."

And yet, Hamilton writes that Williams saw himself as a disciple of Beck’s:

Beck, in particular, he says, is "like a schoolteacher on TV." … "You need to go back to June — June of this year, 2010 — and look at all his programs from June, and you’ll see he’s been breaking open some of the most hideous corruption."


Referring again to the "sabotage" of the Deepwater Horizon, Byron says: "This is what he won’t do, Beck will not say it was a contracted hit. But he’ll give you every ounce of evidence you can possibly need to make that assumption yourself."

And as long as Beck is on the air, spouting hate and patent falsehoods into living rooms across the country, and rallying America on the National Mall, he’s continuing to do the same for likely many more Americans. Most won’t pick up a gun like Byron Williams. But it’s hard to miss the broader environment Beck’s rants at least exploit, if not encourage–the number of high-profile attacks on Muslim Americans this summer, the increasing level of anti-Latino hate crime. Beck (and his corporate sponsors) should consider accepting the same sort of personal responsibility people like him demand from the poor.