Monday, January 10, 2011

Stop. Just ... Stop.

I know it's been a while since I've written on this space -- and that a lot has happened that I could've covered -- but between the holiday and an uptick in activity at work, a lot of things have fallen by the wayside ... this blog included.

But after the horrific events of Saturday, in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others were shot outside a supermarket in Tuscon, Ariz. -- an event that left Rep. Giffords in surgery for hours, a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl killed -- now seemed like as good a time as any to pause and offer insight.

You won't find anything particularly revelatory in this post, nor will you find me calling everyone on the right wing every name in the book -- that's been done by virtually everyone else in the blogosphere and anyone in the mainstream media who tacks the slightest left of center. I do wish more voices on the right would join the chorus calling for the proverbial cease-fire -- to my knowledge, only one GOP Senator has made such a call -- but I'm not surprised that we haven't seen one.

I'm not here to take Sarah Palin to task for her poster during the midterm campaigns where she placed crosshairs over what she thought to be vulnerable districts for Democrats -- including Rep. Giffords -- because frankly, that speaks for itself. I'm not here to rail against Fox News for its rhetoric designed to mislead and frighten its audience with relation to the Obama administration and Democrats as a whole. That point has been made ad nauseum, and will continue to be made as long as there is a Fox News.

There were the "Second Amendment remedies" that Sharron Angle referred to in her Nevada Senate race against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- the idea that if one didn't get their way at the ballot box, it was okay to turn to guns, because that was what the Founding Fathers intended.

Never mind that bugaboo about majority rule.

At this point, all we know about the alleged shooter was that he was anti-government -- the media narrative will automatically try to pigeon-hole him (if it hasn't already) into the Tea Party movement. I've heard media reports theoretically tying the shooter to Jesse Kelly, Rep. Giffords' opponent from the most recent election who held a campaign rally and encouraged supporters to bring their guns.

Tempting as it is for me to do the same -- a side effect of my partisan leanings -- I'm trying not to automatically lump the shooter in with the ultra-conservative, corporate-backed Tea Party movement that fueled Republican gains in last November's elections.

The only thing I know for certain is that words have consequences. Whether we mean for our words to do actual damage is largely irrelevant; though we may have the Constitutional right to say whatever we please, we also have responsibility for how those words are received. Relay an inflammatory and violent message long enough, you become at least partially responsible for it when a less-than-stable individual acts out in a violent manner.

Take Bill O'Reilly. The Fox News host is adamantly pro-life -- which is fine. It's a free country, and he's entitled to that opinion, just as I'm entitled to be pro-choice. But when O'Reilly goes on his highly-rated cable show and proceeds to call Dr. George Tiller "Tiller the Baby Killer" on several occasions and show such obvious personal disgust for a doctor who is providing a women a perfectly legal medical procedure, don't you think he bears some responsibility over the fact that Scott Roeder walked into a church in which Dr. Tiller was attending and killed him?

I'm not saying charge O'Reilly with murder, but last I checked, there was this thing called incitement. I'm not a law expert by any means, but I remember the term incitement being the one instance where the courts did not have to apply First Amendment protections. Basically, if you said something that led a person to commit a violent act, you were held responsible for that.

But the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio makes the subject of incitement a little more complex; the Court ruled that inflammatory speech cannot be punished unless the speech in question is intended to incite and will lead to "imminent lawless action."

If that sounds like a ruling that leaves the door open to plausible deniability, you're probably right. If you can't prove a person intended for their words to bring about violent or lawless behavior, then their First Amendment rights are protected.

Short of recordings of Palin discussing the idea for her crosshairs poster or leaked video of a production meeting for The O'Reilly Factor, how do we prove they intended to have their words leads to the lawless actions of the less stable among us?

Not think they wanted that to happen. Prove it.

Fox News is never going to admit publicly that it means to incite violence with its rhetoric; when Glenn Beck hosts a segment on his show in which he poisons former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in effigy, he'll simply explain it away as a light-hearted moment in his circus of a show, that no one should make anything of it.

Unless you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that's not the case, Beck gets away with it.

The long and short of it, the responsibility rests on all of us to make sure our personal and political discourse never deteriorates to the point where we're encouraging violence against others. We are all human beings, and we are all Americans; it's senseless to incite violence and hatred against each other over political debates. Bringing guns to political rallies does not further our democratic process; it damages it.

Democracy may not be a spectator sport, but it shouldn't be a contact sport, either. Everyone -- from our mainstream media to our own selves -- need to do a better job of making sure our language is civil. We can still get our respective points across without calling for each others' heads.

Can't we?

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