When rhetoric goes too far

This is a screen capture from Facebook Friday about a Scott Walker recall kickoff party:

You will not find this post on Facebook because … well, let’s let the MacIver News Service tell the story: “Moments after the MacIver News Service contacted the page’s administrators for comments about the threats, the offending post was removed.”

This is what our political discourse has devolved into: a call for the assassination of a public official. Aren’t you proud of your country?

We know what would happen if the name “Barack Obama” had replaced Walker’s name. The writer (who appears to have extensive experience with the legal system) would have gotten a visit from either the Secret Service or the FBI, neither of which organization is known for its appreciation of satire or “blowing off steam.” For that matter, the law proscribes making “terroristic threats,” and one wonders if that meets the legal standard.

And what should we make of this?

On Monday afternoon, Capitol Police (whose chief was quoted earlier this year as saying his department was not Walker’s “palace guard”) issued this statement about the Friday post:

“Earlier this morning, Capitol Police became aware of an online death threat directed towards Governor Walker. Capitol Police takes any threat directed towards those who visit or work in the Capitol seriously, and Capitol Police investigators have identified and interviewed the responsible individual. Capitol Police does not generally comment on specific security issues.”

I’ll translate for you. There will be no legal repercussions against either of the Facebook writers.

That may actually be a legally defensible decision, though clearly the writer lacks the morality to appreciate the immorality of this person’s thoughts. On July 19, two of the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit (from whence usually come wrong decisions) ruled that online threats against presidential candidate Obama in 2008 were legally protected by the First Amendment. Justia.com’s Julie  Hilden:

The two-judge majority begins its opinion by noting that President Obama’s campaign, election, and tenure as President have evoked a great deal of vitriol.  Then, the majority goes on to cite vitriolic remarks that were made during early American presidential elections—apparently to convey to the reader that longstanding First Amendment doctrine on this issue is still relevant in a modern context.  Yet, after that, the majority states that “the 2008 presidential election was unique in the combination of racial, religious, and ethnic bias that contributed to the extreme enmity expressed at various points during the campaign.”

In my view, all this back-and-forthing by the majority suggests that the majority is torn over the question whether this case’s historical situation—that is, the fact that it involves a then-candidate who sought to become (and did become) America’s first African-American president—requires that judges accord it some kind of unique consideration. …

All three Ninth Circuit judges analyzed the charges against Bagdasarian under the “true threats” doctrine and agreed on the relevant doctrinal tests: (1) A statement only counts as a “true threat” if the “speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” (This is known as the “subjective test.”) (2)  Moreover, a statement only counts as a true threat if “objective observers would reasonably perceive such speech,” when viewed in its full context, as a threat of injury or death.  (This is known as the “objective test.”) …

Thus, in arguing that the objective test (asking whether a reasonable observer, aware of the relevant context, would see a statement as a threat) was clearly fulfilled, [the dissenting judge] cited America’s experience with political assassination; its history of racial violence; and the fact that Internet threats have sometimes translated into real-life violence—as famously happened, for example, in the Columbine school massacre. …

In sum, I don’t have a good answer for what an ideal test would be, but I think we can do better than either the majority’s tight focus on language, or the dissenter’s very broad view of recent history’s relevance. …

For someone, someday, the stakes of these questions might be life or death, if a true threat is ignored; or imprisonment or freedom, if a mere joker is mistaken for a possible shooter.

Because the stakes are so high here, I hope that the Supreme Court will take up this issue sooner rather than later.

I have some experience in being on the receiving end of threats. Back when I was an intern at a TV station in Madison while a UW student, someone called to express his opinion about the station’s replacing racing coverage with other programming (possibly infomercials). The person said, and I quote, “someone’s going to blow up your fucking TV station” over the station’s programming decision.

This was not, to say the least, what I expected to hear on a Sunday morning in an otherwise-vacant newsroom. I called the station’s news director, who “hired” (or whatever the term is for choosing you to be his unpaid intern) me, and he told me to call the Madison police. I called and quoted the caller, and the person (not sure if it was an officer) asked if the threat had frightened me. Well, no, it didn’t. (Of course, if after leaving the newsroom you suddenly find a couple of unopened packages that you didn’t remember seeing before, that might make you think twice.) I assume there must be some provision of the law that refers to whether a threat is credible or not in the eyes of the recipient of the threat. And I did my part just in case the station was knocked off the air and/or an officer drove by to find a smoking crater where the TV station formerly was.

There also was the dysfunctional school board I got to cover and its adventurous school board meeting that resulted in a threat to my safety phoned in to the wrong Lancaster media outlet. Journalists are protected by the First Amendment, but they are not protected from the First Amendment. Journalists are so far down the food chain of law enforcement safety interest that a threat against journalist is simply another day at the office.

Nearly 50 years ago NBC-TV’s Chet Huntley said this during a horrifying November Friday:

Huntley’s comment came after the fourth presidential assassination in U.S. history. Sixteen presidents have been the object of assassination attempts (some more than once). U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D–Arizona) was shot earlier this year, although if you can discern Jared Loughner’s political views, you have more imagination than I do.

I am starting to believe that the political nastiness in the Occupy _____ movement or Recallarama is going to end up in someone’s death as a direct result of our decreasing ability to control our impulses and our increasing demand to have it our way in everything political. And when it happens, it shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the level of violence in Occupy _____ has been ramping upward for weeks, with sexual assaults and damage to businesses now becoming commonplace. Want proof? Check out the MacIver map:

Recallarama was not the result of or part of a great debate over the role of government; it was the direct result of public employees’ losing political power, the result of the 2010 elections, and having their lost political power affect their wallets. Far too many people with an ability to get their views expressed in public speak or write before thinking, and substitute their emotions for actual logic and cogent arguments.

I blame the left for this, but not because I disagree with Occupy ______ or their efforts to undo the 2010 elections. (For the record, I do disagree with Occupy ______ and the efforts to undo the 2010 elections.) The 1950s and 1960s civil rights protests were peaceful until the Southern Establishment brought the billy clubs, the fire hoses and the police dogs. And then we had Medgar Evans of the NAACP, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy all assassinated within five years.

Malcolm X was the inventor of the phrase “by any means necessary.” The left is the source of the phrase “the personal is political.” And four members of the anti-Vietnam War left thought it would be a swell idea to blow up the UW Army Math Research Center to protest the war.

Now why would I, a non-member of the Republican Party, make such a one-sided statement? Because of this exchange between Jerry Bader of WTAQ, WHBL and WSAU and Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the state Democratic Party:

We exchanged several emails, and I asked him if, as a spokesman for the DPW, he would reject this type of post. His response.

“Also hilarious to me…that having a hyper-partisan like you “defend” the embarrassing MacIver Institute makes all our points for us precisely.

To which I replied:

So your answer is not, you will not reject this type of post

To which he replied:

“No. That’s you warping my words for your partisan ends.

I do not agree at all with your convenient characterization.”

To which I replied:

Yet you can’t bring yourself to say “yes, I reject it.” This exchange will make a great blog post

Which I figured would rattle his cage, and it did:

“What are you asking me to reject? I reject any and all calls for violence, including Scott Walker’s consideration of planting “troublemakers” in peaceful protest crowds. That proves nothing about the MacIver Institute’s methods or motives”

It took pointing out that I was going to blog this to finally get him to at least say he rejects all violence. I love how radicals like Graeme incite the liberal base with overheated rhetoric and then when the liberal base responds with reckless behavior, I’m not supposed to point out the “one bad apple.”

Regardless of how you feel about his political views, Zielinski is an object lesson in how to not conduct organizational public relations. Arguing with the questioner? Check. Failure of message discipline? Check. Sounding like a jackass to someone whose employer buys electric power by the kilowatts for three different radio stations? Check.

Speaking of bad apples, this is the point where I am supposed to give the obligatory but-conservatives-can-be-violent-too spiel. Someone on Facebook who excuses the inexcusable finds moral equivalency between conservative blogger Kevin Binversie’s making this Twitter joke …

Or better yet [Senator] Miller, how about I “Castle Doctrine” a few guys coming to my house w/ recall petitions? #2canplaythisgame

… (which is at least in bad taste) and “Rather than recall him … can we kill him instead?” and when concealed-carry is brought up, adds, “I’m game!” Comparing the two is the same as lumping tea party supporters and the Occupy _____ movements together as government protesters.

Binversie added on Facebook:

Graeme’s promoted so much violence via social media it’s no longer funny. (Our unions will kick your Tea Party’s ass, circa 2010; Happy Anniversary Medicare! Punch a Republican, circa 2011)

It would be one thing if political arguments, even intense arguments, were made based on actual arguing points. That is what I try to do on this blog. I don’t write about candidates’ religions, college transcripts, birth certificates or other irrelevancies to the issues. I’ve been called a Nazi more than once, which says much more about the person equating an opinionmonger with those who caused the deaths of 6 million people. Here, it’s about who’s right or wrong, and what’s right or wrong, and why. Period.

There is never a reason to resolve political differences by assassinating your political opponent, advocating assassination of your opponent, or attempting violence upon your opponent, whether it’s Obama, Walker or anyone else. Anyone who thinks otherwise has a hole in his or her soul and deserves to have the entire weight of the law dropped upon that person. And it says volumes about our world that one has to say something that should be obvious to all but the deranged.

I assume, however, that Pandora’s box can’t be closed anymore. And I fully expect that before the November 2012 election bloggers and opinionmongers will be writing in horror about the assassination of an elected official or the murder of a political activist or, worse, an innocent bystander. (Which already happened in Giffords’ shooting.)  That will be a very, very bad day for this country, regardless of who the victim will be. But that will be the logical result of the direction we’re heading.


20 thoughts on “When rhetoric goes too far

  1. Hahahahahaha this is comical. The other side of the argument makes far more violent and outrageous comments. Get real. Piss poor journalism.

  2. Let me know when the rhetoric does go “too far”, when for all practical purposes, someone normal does get violent; until then, I don’t buy this alarmist argument against people voicing their opinions, no matter how bleak, or unwarranted it is to you.

    Whether you like it or not isn’t the issue- let’s not mistake the ability to say something with actually going forth and doing it. This is aside from the underlying shallow idea of not being partisan, as if everything were equal. This quaint idea is just a luxury.

  3. “When asked to stand guard at the doors that duty was turned over to the Wisconsin State Patrol because our deputies would not stand and be palace guards, I refused to put deputy sheriffs in a position to be palace guards.” Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney

  4. Get used to it, Governor. This is probably a drop in the bucket compared to what our President has received.
    I am not surprised that Mr. Walker has provoked strong emotions. Maybe respecting his opponents and giving them a chance to voice their opinions would have been a good step in the beginning of his term in office. His blatant disregard for the public employee and his union-busting tactics are actions that have stirred people. I applaud the protestors and defend their rights to free speech. I don’t think we need to worry about those who say things on a blog or a FB page. They are identified, they can be found. But don’t you think this is like the proverbial tip of an iceberg? Hidden below the waters are the really dangerous ones. And now our Governor and legislature have put guns in everyone’s hand, how clever is that?

  5. Within the last few sentences of your post you mention that you have been labeled a Nazi on more than one occasion and then follow with the line of reasoning that it is inappropriate for anyone to use violence against a political opponent no matter the scenario. That is the epitome of non-sequitur.

    The next question is where to draw the line between “political opponent” and someone who deserves a violent response, which I believe everyone would agree was appropriate when talking about Nazi Germany.

    1. When you are talking about a foreign enemy, obviously, to quote (I think) Douglas MacArthur, there is no substitute for victory. (I prefer obliteration myself.) I thought it was obvious that the post was about domestic politics. In domestic politics, you defeat your opponent; you don’t assassinate him (or her).

  6. I too, have found that many commenters on my blog prefer to use emotions and emotional reactions in the place of facts and reason. It is disturbing to see death threats to politicians, but, without the current political situation, I don’t think they would be taken seriously.

    It looks very much as though we are in the political struggle of our time and when people take a stand on principles, there will always be those willing to resort to violence to dissuade them from doiing so. It should come as no surprise that those who lack the self discipline to separate facts and reason from emotion are the most likely to behave in that manner.

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