Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gunning for Giffords Rethought: The events in Tuscon chill one's soul. All of us who call ourselves human and who live in one of the freest nations on earth must be staggered by the carnage that occurred in that city which resembled more of the wild west from which Tuscon was born. Many are focusing on the electric explosive current coursing through the veins of the contemporary politics of our nation today. The Internet we know is filled with violent speech calling for the elimination of one or the other political pundit or perceived political foe. This rancid discourse happens on both the left and the right. It happens in our own homes and living rooms. It happens even between friends. The media 24/7 news cycle will be concentrating on the sad fact of the incivility of American political discourse today and try to analyze its cause. It is appropriate that they should do so.

Some on the left are retracting statements, taking down angry speech and even apologizing as Keith Olbermann and others on the left have done. See his Special Comment on his web site eschewing angry political speech. Some on the right are doing so, albeit weakly, as well.

I wrote an opinion when this tragedy first occurred but I decided to retract it and write another. I rethought my argument that the right is mainly to blame for the angry rhetoric spewed by certain news media, the Internet and certain blogs and in part responsible for this dastardly deed. I decided that even though I may have my own favorite indictments of the extremist right I will NOT be impervious to hyperbolic speech that exists on both sides of the political spectrum and which most of us say at one time or another. It is not singular. It encompasses both extremes and everywhere in between.

As I thought about the edits to my opinion I remembered a stunning phone call I received from a political ally on the left who called to scream at me because we disagreed on one issue. I also remembered that during the election this November signs for Democrats were bent, uprooted and thrown to the ground on my lawn. Angry rhetoric and unacceptable behavior are not the domain of a single political point of view. It happens on the right and the left.

I think we can all agree that the perpetrator of this disgusting event in Arizona is mad. The question, though, is this madness stoked by the explosive anything-goes vitriol that passes for political fact in our supposedly democratic republic. I believe that both are so enmeshed that we probably cannot separate the two. If Jared Lee Laughner’s actions were not political (I personally think they were) then someone else somewhere who is equally unbalanced will think their 15 minutes of fame and their cause will be perfectly justified if they commit a stunning act of violence against their perceived enemy. Think of all the attention they would get. There are surely repeat offenders in our midst.

Sarah Palin's cross-hairs post during the 2010 election cycle, I believe, is a contributing factor to our violent present-day mood. When our prominent public figures contribute to this hateful social climate it brings in a tsunami of grief and unprecedented gun violence to this nation. Palin's website where she used gun cross-hairs to target Representative Gabrielle Giffords of the 8th District in Tuscon and many others elsewhere in the nation to be marked for elimination was out of bounds. She says she meant the cross-hairs as a surveyor tool but who really does believe that when she used gun rhetoric to say “Do not retreat but reload?” The underlying sentiment of gun violence is crystal clear. There is no way, in my opinion, Palin can twist and squirm her way out of this one. Both she, Glenn Beck and others have not apologized sufficiently enough for the contributory negligence of their violence-tainted histrionic remarks. In fact, Beck removes himself as a contributing factor by not only coming to the defense of Palin but by putting up on his own website a retraction of violence as he stands there as if he were part of a Norman Rockwell painting peering in so cutely with a gun.

I am questioning today whether any of the injured or any of the family of those who perished could bring suit against most particularly uber prominent political personalities and the microphones and conduits they use to make millions without thought about the consequences of their speech. I believe their rancid public rhetoric comes perilously close to encouraging malice, violence and even treason against our country.

Free speech is one thing but yelling fire in a crowded theater is unacceptable and our Supreme Court under Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said so. The 1919 unanimous decision by the Court in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919) established free speech limits which exist even to this day. This case used the "clear and present danger" yardstick to limit just how far one can go if one by their speech could endanger the public safety. The Court stated and I quote:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

I believe there are limits -- ESPECIALLY for public figures -- as to the express and implied violence of their speech which could encourage the tinderbox that is our nation to ignite. They are to me guilty of contributing by their violent rhetoric to the horrendous occurrences and attempted assassination of a Representative of the U.S. House Gabriel Gifford, the killing of a US District Judge John Rolle and five others who were simply stopping by to say hi to their Representative Gabriel Giffords while attending a political event. Whether those who clearly incite violence can be indicted for contributing to this national catastrophe remains to be seen. I suspect their First Amendment rights to free speech will provide the umbrella they would need to defend themselves but it should give them pause for thought before they speak.

In George Orwell’s famous novel “Animal Farm” about the nature of the all tyrannical extremes he states: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” In this case I say all political extremes are guilty of contributory negligence in this latest Tucson horror show but some extremes are surely guiltier than others.

The 9 year old girl, Christina-Taylor Green, who was killed in this mayhem was born amazingly on 9/11. If that is not a metaphorical fact of what violence has done to this nation than nothing is.

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