Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The new Free Speech issue: Sarah Palin's political targets

I have followed the story of the assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords with a growing sense of alarm over the past few days.

This tragic event took the lives of six innocent people and has been feeding the 24/7 news monster that is the American media. My sense of trepidation has sprung from the fact that the story itself is polarizing the American public, that discourse about the shooting and the finger-pointing it has provoked is distracting people from the real issue. Six people have been needlessly murdered in a climate of increasing political intolerance.

My friends on the political right say the media is using the shooting as a way to criticize Sarah Palin. There has been no tangible evidence, they say, that the shooter's reprehensible act can be tied to Sarah Palin's "target map" of 20 Congressional seats that were up for grabs in the November mid-term elections. (See the target map from Palin's website below).

Giffords was one of 20 Democrats who held seats in congressional districts that traditionally were occupied by Republicans. Palin's "Take back the 20" page placed rifle scope targets over the districts of the 20 candidates, including Giffords' district in Arizona. I have not been able to confirm the rumor that Palin's Facebook website also placed the rifle scope crosshairs icon over the faces of the 20 Democrats she had "targeted" for removal from office.

Whether or not the shooter in Tucscon (a troubled 22-year-old high school drop-out named Jared Lee Loughner) was provoked to action by the "target" Palin placed over Giffords's district is irrelevant. Such a provocative picture -- even if meant as a harmless joke designed to rally her political base -- is inherently dangerous because of its obvious implication: whenever a rifle crosshair is placed over the face of a political adversary, it can be interpreted as a mandate to murder.

One need not be "crazy" to see the implication, just to act on it. It is a provocative call to arms. As such, it should be criticized by rational people and banned by the courts. To think it deserves the protection of the first amendment is absurd and potentially dangerous.

In his landmark Supreme Court opinion in 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in Schneck v. The United States that freedom of speech was not guaranteed by the first amendment. Free speech is a privilege and citizens must bear some responsibly for its use. Words can incite anger or create panic, Holmes noted. He used the analogy of a patron falsely calling out "fire!" in a crowded theater to create pandemonium.

It strikes me as obvious that Sarah Palin's use of a rifle scope with crosshairs is exactly the kind of provocative speech that Justice Holmes was warning us about. In his column in the New York Times yesterday, Paul Krugman put a term on hate speech that implies the shooting of opponents is a viable option: eliminationist rhetoric. He wrote:

"It’s important to be clear here about the nature of our sickness. It’s not a general lack of 'civility,' the favorite term of pundits who want to wish away fundamental policy disagreements. Politeness may be a virtue, but there’s a big difference between bad manners and calls, explicit or implicit, for violence; insults aren’t the same as incitement.

The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary. And it’s the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence."

We live in a nation that reveres free speech. Respectful disagreement and rational argument are the bricks and mortar upon which the foundations of democracy rest. Political commentary is necessary. But let's not muddy the waters by implying the media is "liberal" for castigating Sarah Palin's use of crosshair targets over her political adversaries.

Her party affiliation has nothing to do with legitimate criticisms of Sarah Palin's provocative website. When Democratic candidates for elective office publish or post incentiary materials about their opponents, they deserve to be criticized too.

If we wish to live in peace with one another, Americans should expect and demand more from their elected officials.

Read the complete Krugman column here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/opinion/10krugman.html?_r=1