At this writing, it’s not known who mailed the ten (at last count) “suspicious packages” to Democratic leaders, high-dollar supporters and media figures, and we can still only theorize about their goal. But that hasn’t stopped people on both left and right from spraining their fingers pointing them so hard. It’s sadly true that the rough, aggressive speech has escalated on both sides (mostly on the left, but still). Not surprisingly, though, the dominant media are quick to blame the President’s “tone” and talk of body slams and such while failing to address the wild, frantic, borderline-insane antics on the left. Should we be blaming this more in-your-face attitude and the tougher talk –- on either or both sides –- for the real violence that’s taking place in some parts of our country?
Andrew C. McCarthy, one of our favorite go-to legal experts, has a thought-provoking new column about this that challenges our propensity for assigning cause-and-effect to speech and violence. The title says it all: “Stop Blaming Mass-Murder Attacks on Obnoxious Political Rhetoric.” Let’s see if he makes the case.
First off, the column tells us more about McCarthy than most of us knew, and that background helps us understand his point of view. He says he’s been fascinated for the past couple of days watching the bomb scare, as he’s helped protect people who were in danger as a deputy U.S. marshal in the Witness Protection Program and was even a protected person himself for a couple of years when, as a prosecutor, he had threats made against him in connection with a terrorism case which involved...yes, bombings.
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So he became familiar with various types of bombs. In that particular case, they varied widely in sophistication; there were crude pipe bombs (I would imagine similar to those being mailed now), Molotov cocktails, ANFO bombs (ammonium nitrate and fuel oil), and even the 1,400-pound urea nitrate-based bomb that was used in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
He points out that as disturbingly easy as it can be to make a bomb, it’s extremely dangerous work and the skill of bomb makers varies just as widely as the sophistication of the bombs themselves. Even people who know what they’re doing can be reckless and careless, though; incredibly, the World Trade Center bombers kept their stash of an extremely volatile substance, nitroglycerine, in the fridge. Sometimes bombers blow themselves up. Probably every terrorist (ask Bill Ayers) knows of someone who did that. So, as risky as it is to make bombs, what would the motivation be here?
None of the bombs have exploded. The one addressed to ex-CIA Director John Brennan at CNN (though he works for MSNBC) didn’t even have a blasting cap or other type of detonator. So, are we dealing with a really incompetent bomber (or bombers), or is the idea not to actually blow anybody up? McCarthy suggests that the objective might be to create a climate of fear, but I can certainly think of more possibilities, such as to diffuse or distract from other events in the news. We’re smart enough to fill in the blanks.
McCarthy likens the “safe” bombs to the fake anthrax letters that others have sent in recent years.
But his main point is that instead of talking about the bomber’s objective, his end game, we’re talking about what might have set him off, and each side is blaming the other. As someone who has actually prosecuted an incitement-of-violence case –- the legal term is “solicitation to commit a crime of violence” –- he says it’s extremely hard to get a conviction on that. Which is fine with him.
In short, if we say something that makes someone else angry, we can’t be responsible for what he does. Think of what would happen to the very concept of free speech if we shouldered the blame. Offensive speech is protected expression, and no one has the right not to be offended. Political speech would be effectively shut down, and there are those who would like nothing better –- as long as the restriction applied only to those of us on the right (and it would). Imagine one vast college-style “safe space” stretching from sea to shining sea.
The case McCarthy was involved in was that of the Blind Sheik, who was found guilty of inciting and soliciting terrorist attacks. To prove this, as he explains, “it was not nearly enough to show that he made incendiary speeches. We had to prove that he was an authority figure within an ideological system that clearly taught violence as a duty against enemies; he issued unambiguous commands to violence that there was no doubt he intended others to carry out; and the surrounding circumstances corroborated his intent –- he had ordered murders and jihadist attacks in the past, and they’d been carried out.”
According to McCarthy, the political rhetoric we’re hearing these days is “not in that league.” He says it’s “reprehensible” and that we should demand better, but “we shouldn’t have to demand it if we exhibit it.” I don’t know –- I try to stay above all that, and I’ll bet you do, too, but without any consequences for their behavior, these people have no incentive to seek higher ground. Worse, instead of suffering consequences, they’re ultimately reaping rewards –- in the news media, on awards shows, on late night TV, among their peers. There almost seems to be a contest to see how vile they can be to the President, his family and his supporters.
Even though it might not result in prosecution in a court of law, it’s skirting that line. It’s gotten so extreme that who’s to say if it isn’t inciting more violence?
Agreed, we are --- legally and morally --- responsible for our own actions. If you’re of a certain age like me and you remember comedian Flip Wilson (who occasionally “identified” as female Geraldine), you remember the line, “The devil made me do it.” But the devil doesn’t make you blow people up, and neither do Maxine Waters and other rabble-rousers, though they certainly play a part in making some people feel like doing it. It’s your decision whether or not to respond, your decision to, as Rudyard Kipling put it, keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
McCarthy does say that even though what appears to be incitement might not be actionable, politicians who literally, explicitly call for violence should suffer the political consequences. I'll second that! But he maintains that we as individuals are responsible for our own behavior, and that “purple political prose” doesn’t cause people to go on a bombing spree.
To that I would say that, no, it doesn’t CAUSE them to go on a bombing spree. But it does add fuel to the fire that causes angry people to rationalize going on a bombing spree, or in this case perhaps trying to fake one for political benefit.