Sunday, January 09, 2011

When Does Free Speech Become Inciting Violence?

One of the video clips to come out of yesterday's violence is Pima County's Sheriff Dupnik arguing that violent rhetoric can incite violence in the mentally unstable - yesterday's shooter was very unstable - see below - and it seems likely that he was suffering a psychotic break. Here is a quote from Dupnik, from the video linked to above:

"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government," he said.

"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
~Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik

Everyone wants to condemn this kid for the horrible things he has done - and that is totally understandable. We all are hurt and angry that this can happen in our country - in my town, to my representative.

As I mentioned yesterday, I've met her and spoken with her - during her first campaign for Congress. I was working for one of her Democratic challengers and met her prior to a public debate. She was very polite and charming. This feels strangely personal.

Anyway, I find myself feeling compassion for the shooter, and anger at his parents for not getting him the psychological help he so obviously needed. And I am angry that AZ gun laws are so lax that he legally buy a gun so easily. And I am angry that the high capacity clip he had - that allowed him to fire so many rounds so quickly - had become legal again during the Budh presidency:
The suspect used a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol equipped with an extended magazine that can hold approximately 30 rounds or more - two to three times a normal magazine capacity, a person with knowledge of the investigation told CBS News. The high-capacity magazine was illegal as part of the federal assault weapons ban put in place during the Clinton administration, but the ban was allowed to expire during the Bush administration.
Here is some information from an article in last night's New York Times coverage that gives a little background on the shooter and his mental status:

He had posted on his Myspace page at some point a photograph of a United States history textbook, on top of which he had placed a handgun. He prepared a series of Internet videos filled with rambling statements on topics including the gold standard, mind control and SWAT teams. And he had started to act oddly during his classes at Pima Community College, causing unease among other students.

That behavior, along with a disturbing video, prompted school administrators to call in Mr. Loughner’s parents and tell them that their son had been suspended and would have to get a mental health evaluation to return to college. Instead, he dropped out in October, a spokesman for the college said.

The evidence and reports about Mr. Loughner’s unusual conduct suggest an increasing alienation from society, confusion, anger as well as foreboding that his life could soon come to an end. Still, there appear to be no explicit threats of violence that explain why, as police allege, Mr. Loughner, 22, would go to a Safeway supermarket north of Tucson on Saturday morning and begin shooting at a popular Democratic congresswoman and more than a dozen other people, killing 6 and wounding 19.

Police officials on Saturday said that Mr. Loughner had a criminal record of some kind, but they did not provide any details. They also hinted that he might have had the help of a second person, adding that they were searching for another man.

Don Coorough, 58, who sat two desks in front of Mr. Loughner in a poetry class last semester, described him as a “troubled young man” and “emotionally underdeveloped.” After another student read a poem about getting an abortion, Mr. Loughner compared the young woman to a “terrorist for killing the baby.”

“No one in that class would even sit next to him,” Mr. Coorough said. Another fellow student said that he found Mr. Loughner’s behavior so eccentric — including inappropriate remarks and unusual outbursts — that he wondered if he might be on hallucinogens. Mr. Loughner grew up in Tucson and was an unremarkable student at Mountain View High School, classmates said.

* * * * *

A series of short videos posted on the Internet, apparently by Mr. Loughner, consist of changing blocs of text that are largely rambling and incoherent. Many take the form of stating a premise and then a logical conclusion that would follow from it.

They speak of being a “conscience dreamer”; becoming a treasurer of a new currency; controlling “English grammar structure”; mentioned brainwashing and suggested that he believed he had powers of mind control.

“In conclusion, my ambition — is for informing literate dreamers about a new currency; in a few days, you know I’m conscience dreaming!” he wrote in one video, which was uploaded to YouTube on Dec. 15.

Still, some strands of recognizable political thought are woven among the more incoherent writings. Another video, for example, says debts should only be paid in currency that is backed by gold and silver.

So, obviously this kid was not well. He needed to be in therapy, and probably on medications. My guess is that he was experiencing auditory command hallucinations. His mental state was/is highly unstable and easily influenced.

So then we have politicians - highly public figures - advocating violence and revolution - and the media printing it and showing in on TV. Not just politicians, but talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck.

The Daily Kos has posted a round-up of some of the hate and violence that has been in the media in recent months (and years), especially during the last election cycle.

I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us 'having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people -- we the people -- are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country."
~Michele Backmann

"Don’t retreat. Instead — reload!"
~Sarah Palin

"I hope that's not where we're going, but you know if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out."
~Sharon Angle

''Our nation was founded on violence. The option is on the table. I don't think that we should ever remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedoms.''
—Tea Party-backed Texas GOP congressional candidate Stephen Broden

''I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. ... No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out.''
—Glenn Beck, May 17, 2005

This final collection of quotes spans the last couple of years, and involves all forms of hate, but this is the general mindset of some radical elements of the political right in the US.

''The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.''
—Pat Robertson

''The Girl Scouts allow homosexuals and atheists to join their ranks, and they have become a pro-abortion, feminist training corps. If the Girl Scouts of America can't get back to teaching real character, perhaps it will be time to look for our cookies elsewhere.''
—Hans Zeiger, Republican candidate for Congress in Washinton state

''My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.''
—Ann Coulter

''Obama's got a health care logo that's right out of Adolf Hitler's playbook ... Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate.''
—Rush Limbaugh, Aug. 6, 2009

''The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel.'''
—Sarah Palin

''We need to execute people like (John Walker Lindh) in order to physically intimidate liberals.''
—Ann Coulter

''I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country.''
—Rep. Virginia Foxx

''My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better.''
—South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer

''Barack Obama ... chose to use his name Barack for a reason -- to identify, not with America -- you don't take the name Barack to identify with America. You take the name Barack to identify with what? Your heritage? The heritage, maybe, of your father in Kenya, who is a radical? Is -- really? Searching for something to give him any kind of meaning, just as he was searching later in life for religion.''
—Glenn Beck

''Baby Killer!''
—Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), shouting at Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI)

''She's a f**king raghead. We got a raghead in Washington; we don't need one in South Carolina. She's a raghead that's ashamed of her religion trying to hide it behind being Methodist for political reasons.''
—South Carolina State Sen. Jake Knotts (R)

''He has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity.''
—Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), on President Obama's decision to fund international family planning organizations that support legal abortion, Sept. 26, 2009

'If you're oriented toward animals, bestiality, then, you know, that's not something that can be used, held against you or any bias be held against you for that. Which means you'd have to strike any laws against bestiality, if you're oriented toward corpses, toward children, you know, there are all kinds of perversions ... pedophiles or necrophiliacs or what most would say is perverse sexual orientations.''
—Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) arguing that a hate crimes bill passed by Congress would lead to Nazism and legalization of necrophilia, pedophilia, and bestiality, Oct. 6, 2009

''I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?''
—Rep. Michelle Bachmann, calling for a new McCarthyism, Oct. 2008

I am a huge defender of free speech - but I am forced to wonder when speech such of some of what is posted above becomes the cultural equivalent of yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater?

There are a lot of mentally unstable people in this country, and the more hate that gets into the public discourse, the more violence that so-called "leaders" advocate, the more become immune to this level of rhetoric, the more likely we are to fail to notice people like yesterday's shooter who hear those words and take them seriously, as commands or justifications.

I don't know where to draw the line, but we need to have a serious cultural discussion on this issue - which means that there will be over-reaction, some puff-pieces, and nothing will change.


frangepanni said...

Very well said and written. I can't believe those politicians said those things. I guess peace and love aren't getting them far enough!?! Just blows my mind...

Anonymous said...

I understand the debate over inciting violence. But I think we will find our answer to all of the distasteful and hateful warmonger rhetoric if we look at the months, even years leading up to the shooting of Rep. Giffords. What, if anything did anyone do to hold Palin and others accountable at the time they put the rhetoric out there? Even though Gabby made a personal plea to Palin, Palin didn't care; and she still doesn't. It's obvious that the people who don't agree with Palin are non-violent and people like that (me) rely on our LAW to keep us safe from harm. I want to know what lawmakers plan on doing when they look back in hind sight. Is this something that we are just going to have to learn to live with? Are the Palin's and Beck's able to push their agenda because they threaten us? Why didn't Gabby or other lawmakers file cases against Palin and Beck previously for using hate speech. If an average every day person appeals to congress and says "I expect congress to limit hateful rhetoric and non-factual data." I think there should be a new law that prevents politicians from lying. It's up to the courts to keep us safe. What are the courts doing to prevent this?

Big D said...

Thank you for sharing your feelings, thoughts and all those quotes. To be sure, this language is used on both sides of the isle but I think it is much stronger coming from the right.

My Theory: When there is a challenge to the Status quo (and the status quo is what benefits you) and all one has is an ideology, some people turn nasty and mean. It's a means of not having to discuss whats REALLY on the table. Equal rights, and true liberty and freedom. It's rather like playground bullies who really can't stand up for themselves. They turn to name calling and made up stories to try and stay on top.

The right has been criticizing the government for decades ("Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem." -- Ronald Reagan) yet they LOVE government and hide behind it every chance they get. I mean, they ARE politicians!!! Come on man.

And one more point, our "Media" has turned to this "equal time for all topics" mode which really does a disservice to the truth. How can anyone tell what is the "news" when all topics are shrouded in opinions?

Something is rotten in Washington and it's not Harry Reid or the Democratic party.