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The FBI is investigating the death of census worker Bill Sparkman, who was found hanging from a tree in Kentucky with the word "fed" scrawled across his chest. The presence of an anti-government slur is already sparking a debate over whether right-wing conspiracy-theorizing is becoming irresponsible. Paranoia about the census had been spread by a handful of conservative leaders, including Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who suggested she would not be completing the census because it could be used to establish internment camps like those constructed for Japanese-Americans during World War II.

  • Leaders Enable the Anti-Government Fringe  Alex Koppelman wrote that paranoia has always existed on the fringe, but conservative leaders who encourage their fear are bringing them to the forefront. "There are always people who have some sort of paranoia about the federal government and the census, but things might be worse this time around," he wrote. "There's been a lot of talk on the right about the connection (always very tenuous, and now severed) between the census and ACORN, a group that's been conservatives' favorite bogeyman of late. And Rep. MicheleBachmann, R-Minn., has been spreading her own fears about the census, at one point even suggesting a link between the census and Japanese internment during World War II -- a frightening parallel for modern conspiracy theorists who fear that the government is setting up similar camps for them now."
  • Encouraging Violence?  Digby pointed to high-profile conspiracy mongering that may have implicitly condoned violence. "If he was killed for being a federal census worker, it certainly wouldn't be the first time that 'Feds' have been targeted," she wrote. "And we all know that the census is an ACORN plot and the Van Jones commies in the government are trying to destroy the American way of life. Michelle Bachman told us so. You can't expect Real Americans to just sit back and let that happen."
  • Claiming 'Lynching' Only Makes it Worse  Gawker's Andrew Belonsky warned that forcing outrage around this single, isolated incident could escalate violence. "Such symbolic use of the word 'lynch,' though convenient, may do more harm than good," he wrote. "Of course politicians and media personalities should be wary of fanning outraged flames, and hopefully Sparkman's death, even if not murder, will make people think twice about churning up national shit. (Are you listening, Glenn Beck?) That said, there's also a real danger that a one-sided, accusatory conversation will only make the right feel more isolated and, therefore, help spread anti-government sentiment."
  • Don't Jump to Conclusions  So cautioned several pundits, who noted that we don't yet have all the facts. DougJ wrote, "I would still caution against assuming that this was anti-government right-wing violence unless and until more details emerge." Dan Riehl anticipated a coming media firestorm over the story. "Get ready for a round of stories debating whether it is the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, or a color blind racist that led to this alleged homicide," he wrote. "It's a tragic story, but that won't stop the media from cherry picking the facts to drive the particular talking head debates they will most likely love to have."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.