IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The challenge of assigning blame

FRC President Tony Perkins.
FRC President Tony Perkins.Associated Press

Floyd Lee Corkins II is in custody, accused of shooting an unarmed guard at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., yesterday. According to all accounts, Corkins was motivated by his political opposition to the FRC's far-right, anti-gay message, and the gunman carried ammunition and 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches in his backpack during the attack.

Fortunately, the victim, Leo Johnson, will recover and no one was hurt, but the incident could have been much worse had Johnson not unarmed Corkins. Today, the group's president, former Republican lawmaker Tony Perkins, held a press event responding to the incident.

[Perkins] said the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups gave "license" to a shooter who injured a security guard at the conservative religious policy and lobbying organization's headquarters on Wednesday.

In a news conference addressing the incident and the arrest of the alleged shooter, Floyd Corkins II, Perkins said: "Let me be clear that Floyd Corkins was responsible for firing the shots yesterday that wounded one of our colleagues ... but Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been reckless in labeling organizations 'hate groups' because they disagree with them on public policy."

Perkins noted that plenty of LGBT organizations issued statements condemning Corkins' violence, and he "appreciates" the sentiments, adding that he hopes they will "join us in calling for an end to the reckless rhetoric that I believe led to yesterday's incident."

The bigger picture is quite more nuanced than Perkins seems willing to acknowledge. The Southern Poverty Law Center has condemned the Family Research Council's anti-gay work because, well, the Family Research Council does a lot of anti-gay work -- enough for the SPLC to label the FRC a "hate" group.

For Perkins, there's a chain of events that points to causality -- the SPLC condemned the FRC for its anti-gay work; Corkins may have seen the SPLC's condemnation; the suspected gunman was apparently deranged enough to want to commit acts of violence against his perceived enemy; ergo the SPLC bears some responsibility for Corkins' actions.

Except that doesn't make any sense, and Perkins surely knows better.

Consider this tragic violence in 2008 from Tennessee, for example.

A man accused of fatally shooting two adults and wounding seven others at a Knoxville church told police the church's liberal teachings prompted him to attack, according to court papers.

Jim David Adkisson told investigators all liberals should be killed and admitted he shot people Sunday morning at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, according to a search warrant affidavit obtained by CNN affiliate WBIR. [...]

According to the affidavit requesting to search Adkisson's home, the suspect told investigators liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country. Adkisson also blamed Democrats for the country's decline, according to the affidavit.

When investigators searched the murder's home, they found "Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder" by Michael Savage, "Let Freedom Ring" by Sean Hannity, and "The O'Reilly Factor," by Bill O'Reilly.

Did Savage, Hannity, and O'Reilly give, to use Tony Perkins' word, "license" to the madman to shoot nine unarmed, innocent people in a church? Of course not. Savage, Hannity, and O'Reilly are free to share their political opinions, and so long as they don't incite acts of violence, it's unfair to blame them for the actions of a madman.

Indeed, Perkins has been deeply critical of all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. If some sick individual heard those criticisms and decided to commit and act of violence, Perkins wouldn't be responsible, either.

I'm a little surprised Perkins pushed this argument today, and I have to wonder if, once people have a chance to catch their breath and reflect on yesterday's violence, he might reconsider.