Loaded Words

September 8, 2009 Current Commentary Comments Off
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“The pen is mightier than the sword,” the old saying tells us, but what few people remember is that the pen, like the sword, can be deadly when wielded with malice.

Of course, pens alone cannot kill, just as guns alone cannot kill, as proponents of gun rights are eager to remind us. Fatalities occur when hateful ideas are combined with deadly force. This is why a commentator who advocates violence shares in the responsibility when some nut job translates words into action. While freedom of expression is a fundamental, inalienable right, there is a line between expressing an opinion and inciting violence.

The recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a provider of late-term abortions, is a tragic example of what happens when pundits, activists and bloggers behave irresponsibly. Scott Roeder, who allegedly shot and killed the doctor on May 31, apparently acted alone, but he did not act in isolation.

Tiller was repeatedly singled out as a target by the pro-life movement and was given the nickname “Tiller the baby killer.” Bill O’Reilly, the conservative talk show host, used the phrase repeatedly, according to the PolitiFact feature of the Saint Petersburg Times. On March 26, O’Reilly said on his show, “If you want to kill a baby, you hire Tiller. You’ve got to pay him 5,000 up front, and he’ll kill the baby.”

O’Reilly certainly never directly conspired in Tiller’s murder, and, on the occasion of Tiller’s death, he commented that “No matter what you think about abortion, it is a sad day for the country when vigilantism takes a life.” But his words and the words of others like him painted a target on Tiller’s back. He cannot stand there with the paintbrush still dripping and disclaim his role in what followed.

Although it fortunately did not have the same consequences, Moveon.org’s 2007 ad referring to Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray-us” was similarly irresponsible. Then—White House spokesman Tony Snow called the ad “a boorish, childish, unworthy attack.” Boorish and childish is an understatement. People who “betray us” are enemies, not fellow citizens with whom we happen to disagree. And enemies are objects of hate.

For its part, Moveon.org says its language was “hard-hitting and catchy.”

The personally directed rage sown by this sort of personal attack is a threat to individual safety. An elaborate surveillance system guards the home of U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton of Washington, D.C. The judge, who has received death threats after delivering rulings on hot-button issues, has said he believes the blame for blurring the line between personal expression and violence rests in part with talk show hosts. “The type of vicious attacks sometimes that you see coming from certain players in the media, I think contributes to the problem,” he said.

While the path between words and violence is often hard to trace, in some cases it is obvious. Hal Turner, a New Jersey blogger and Internet radio talk-show host, was recently arrested after he wrote on his website that three judges “deserve to be killed” because of their ruling on a Second Amendment case. Turner posted the judges’ photos, contact information and room numbers. He also included a picture and map of the building in which they work, providing all the information necessary for someone to follow up on his suggestions. If this is “expression,” it is the same kind of expression as leaving a bullet in someone’s mailbox. In other words, it is a threat.

If there were no emotionally or mentally unsound people in the world, behavior like that of Turner, Moveon.org and O’Reilly would be merely boorish, not dangerous. But we don’t live in such a world. If you say that a person deserves to die, there is a chance someone out there reading or listening to your words will decide that you’re right.

Avoiding incendiary speech is not enough; we must also refuse to provide the platform for this language. If O’Reilly’s comments about Tiller influenced Roeder to carry a gun into the Wichita church where he killed the doctor, then not only is O’Reilly responsible, but so are all those at Fox News who produce O’Reilly’s show. A man shouting on a street corner will never have the same influence as a man shouting on network television. Everyone involved in converting the former into the latter bears responsibility for what is said.

On this page, comments are moderated to ensure that this space will never play host to violent or hateful language. We welcome genuine debate, even when heated, but only so long as it is conducted within the norms of civility.


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