By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, posted an alert on its blog Tuesday: “Paul Ryan Speaking at Hate Group’s Annual Conference.”
The “hate group” that the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate would be addressing? The Family Research Council, a mainstream conservative think tank founded by James Dobson and run for many years by Gary Bauer.
The day after the gay rights group’s alert went out, 28-year-old Floyd Lee Corkins II walked into the Family Research Council’s Washington headquarters and, according to an FBI affidavit, proclaimed words to the effect of “I don’t like your politics” — and shot the security guard. Corkins, who had recently volunteered at a gay community center, was carrying a 9mm handgun, a box of ammunition and a backpack full of Chick-fil-A — the company whose president recently spoke out against gay marriage.
Mercifully, the gunman was restrained, and nobody was killed. When I walked by the Family Research Council building in downtown Washington on Thursday afternoon, things were returning to normal. Outside the main doors, above which is inscribed the group’s “Faith, Family, Freedom” motto, some discarded yellow police tape lay on the sidewalk. Attention to the incident had already begun to fade.
That’s unfortunate, because this shooting should remind us all of an important truth: that while much of the political anger in America today lies on the right, there are unbalanced and potentially violent people of all political persuasions. The rest of us need to be careful about hurling accusations that can stir up the crazies.
Human Rights Campaign isn’t responsible for the shooting. Neither should the organization that deemed the FRC a “hate group,” the Southern Poverty Law Center, be blamed for a madman’s act. But both are reckless in labeling as a “hate group” a policy shop that advocates for a full range of conservative Christian positions, on issues from stem cells to euthanasia.
I disagree with the Family Research Council’s views on gays and lesbians. But it’s absurd to put the group, as the law center does, in the same category as Aryan Nations, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Stormfront and the Westboro Baptist Church. The center says the FRC “often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.” Exhibit A in its dossier is a quote by an FRC official from 1999 (!) saying that “gaining access to children has been a long-term goal of the homosexual movement.”
Offensive, certainly. But in the same category as the KKK?
Since the shooting, conservatives have complained that the media have played down the story. This probably has less to do with bias than with the fact that nobody was killed. Still, there is something to the complaint.
I took issue with Glenn Beck for stirring up the unstable by promoting conspiracy theories in the mass media; more than one Beck follower became violent. What the Southern Poverty Law Center and Human Rights Campaign have done isn’t close to the level of provocation Beck achieved, but that doesn’t justify their actions. The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, is right to say that the attack “is the clearest sign we’ve seen that labeling pro-marriage groups as ‘hateful’ must end.”
Gays and lesbians are winning the fight for equality by example and persuasion. Those who support gay rights will gain nothing by sticking inflammatory labels on their opponents, many of whom are driven by deeply held religious beliefs.
The Family Research Council’s president, Tony Perkins, said Thursday that “Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center.” This goes too far. Nobody gave Corkins a license to kill. But at the same time, “hate,” a strong word, has been used too loosely — whether it’s Mitt Romney telling President Obama to take his “campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago,” or the Southern Poverty Law Center lumping a Christian policy group in with hooded bigots.
Late Thursday, the law center fired back at Perkins, defending its categorization of the FRC as a hate group because it “has knowingly spread false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people.” The center said that Perkins should stop putting out “claims that are provably false” about gay people.
Yes, Perkins should stop doing that. But even if he doesn’t, the Southern Poverty Law Center should stop listing a mainstream Christian advocacy group alongside neo-Nazis and Klansmen.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.