Take freedom of speech out of the crosshairs

The tragedy in Tucson, Arizona on Jan. 8, 2011 has shocked America to its core. When the carnage wrought by Jared Lee Loughner finally ended, six people were dead, including a Federal Judge, and thirteen more were wounded. Most prominent among the survivors is United States Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is believed to have been Loughner’s intended target.

No sooner had the dust settled than speculation about what motivated the vicious shooting. A consensus soon settled on the violent political rhetoric that had been flung across the airwaves and across cyberspace in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting. Many pundits condemned the now-infamous image of Representative Gifford’s head in a set of stylized crosshairs.

If such words or images had not been put forth, then surely Loughner would not have been motivated to go out and shoot nineteen people. It is vital that such violent, hate-laced speech be outlawed, and that civil discourse immediately return to the political arena.

Or is it?

Before we jump on the outlaw-violent-speech bandwagon, it is important to note that no one knows for sure why Loughner went on his murderous rampage. He isn’t telling anyone. However, a check of his MySpace page and YouTube account reveal some aspects of Loughner’s personality, specifically that he probably is not entirely sane. His videos are semi-coherent rants about things like “conscience dreaming” and “embracing the new currency,” though he never states exactly what this new currency is.

Nowhere does he appear to reference any of the violent slogans that had been tossed about by politicians or media pundits. However, until Loughner chooses to reveal his true motivations, we cannot know what influence, if any, the violent political rhetoric had on Loughner’s decision to attempt to assassinate Representative Giffords. 

It is also important to realize that polite civil discourse has never really been a part of American politics. Inflamed, violent rhetoric has actually been a hallmark of the American political system since the first political parties formed in the early 19th century. That rhetoric often included violent and vicious personal attacks on candidates, their spouses, their friends and even their children.

Political violence in those days often spread beyond simple language: political rivals sometimes fought duels with each other. The most famous political duel was between Alexander Hamilton, who had participated in more than a dozen other duels, and Aaron Burr. Far from being unusually violent, today’s political rhetoric seems absolutely civilized compared to that of two hundred years ago.

Finally, while today’s political rhetoric is undoubtedly violent, that speech is ultimately protected by the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads in part that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or the press.

Yes, the phrases are full of violent metaphors. Yes, they are certainly in extremely poor taste. Even so, unless a politician or media pundit is actively calling for violence to be inflicted on someone, his or her words are protected. The infamous ‘head-in-the-crosshairs’ image was a visual metaphor for Gifford’s seat in the House of Representatives to be “targeted” in the November 2010 election and was not a call by Sarah Palin to murder Giffords. Free Speech still applies to political rhetoric, even if the words being spoken are undeniably distasteful.

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