Hate and Ignorance…Again

Then, one day, I woke up and saw things differently. I saw the relationship between hate speech and violence. I began to see all hate speech as incitement to murder. And, since at least some of it was directed at my own ethnic group, I began to see it as incitement to murder my children. Seen in that light, intolerance ceased to be worthy of tolerance.

Book burning
Koran burning

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an appropriate day to think about political violence, like the violence that followed the burning of a Koran in Florida. I started a spirited discussion by posting my opinion on FaceBook that Terry Jones, the Florida book burner, was responsible for the murders in Afghanistan and ought to be charged with a crime. Few people agreed.

I used to be a First Amendment absolutist, like Hugo Black. I was offended by the attempts at universities to enact “hate speech codes.” I reasoned, as many do, that the most obnoxious speech is exactly that in most need of First Amendment protection.

Then, one day, I woke up and saw things differently. I saw the relationship between hate speech and violence. I began to see all hate speech as incitement to murder. And, since at least some of it was directed at my own ethnic group, I began to see it as incitement to murder my children. Seen in that light, intolerance ceased to be worthy of tolerance.

The memorial for Dr. King in Madison today attracted a large crowd, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has spent much of the past month in
Wisconsin helping to get out the vote for tomorrow’s election. He brought with him two of the sanitation workers whose strike was the reason that Dr. King was in Memphis that horrible day. Madison has become the focus of the struggle for workers’ rights as human rights these past few months and the connection between our travail and that of the workers for whom Dr. King sacrificed his life is palpable.

Violence breeds violence

So, when a selfish, headstrong man disregards the strong objections of those who know the obvious consequences and publicly burns the Koran, and the loss of life that was not only predictable, but predicted, occurs, my immediate reaction is, “why hasn’t this man been arrested yet?” He may not be the murderer, but he is certainly a party to the crime.

How can this be, my predictably liberal friends ask? Doesn’t he have the same First Amendment rights as those idiots who burn the flag? The difference is the forseeability of deadly violence. The deaths that followed this act were a known consequence of the act. Our commander in Afghanistan warned Terry Jones personally that this violence would be the likely result. Since we are at war in Afghanistan, perhaps the appropriate crime is treason.

It is only words, one might suggest. Let’s think about this.. The words spoken at Wannsee were only words. The words spoken in Mafia boardrooms are only words. The words spoken by Charles Manson were only words. Ah, you say, but those people actually told someone to do something. So, already, we have carved out one category of words that are not protected: those that directly tell someone to do something bad.

Then, what about words that indirectly tell someone to do something bad? Yelling fire in a crowded theater falls into this category, as does incitement of race hatred. Which of these are legal and which forbidden?

Carried a step further, what about actions that are the equivalent of words, like burning a flag, or (apparently) contributing to a campaign? Is burning a Koran a form of political or religious speech? If so, is it protected? Always, or does it lose its protection under certain circumstances?

One of the posts on my FB comment quoted a US Supreme Court case in which the operative concept was whether the dangerous speech created a “clear and present danger” of inciting violence. This approach is no longer in favor, but it does provide a construct for consideration of how the problem might be resolved.

I don’t know that a clear set of principles can be distilled to resolve when speech is protected and when it is not. It is clear that there is some speech which everyone agrees is not protected (“kill him”) and some which everyone agrees is protected. It is the most obnoxious stuff in between that is the problem, like burning a Koran or a consecrated Torah scroll. I know one can’t just say, as with pornography, “I know it when I see it.” But, I don’t have a real alternative.

I just know that Terry Jones is guilty of helping to kill a bunch of innocent people.

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2 thoughts on “Hate and Ignorance…Again”

  1. Okay, here we go again. Firstly, I don’t like to be called a predictable liberal especially by a liberal. I would much prefer to be called a consistent liberal.

    I strongly agree that Terry Jones is despicable, gross, and is possibly guilty of a hate crime. But, he did not incite 99.99999 percent of Muslims to hurt anyone.

    When one shouts, “Fire” in a crowded theatre , it is logical to assume that all people will run for the exits. How can one be prosecuted for an act that sparks irrational people to do irrational acts? Must people modify their behavior because of other people’s irrational beliefs. Should I be barred from eating clams and ham because Jews, Muslims and Vegans think it is a no-no and warn they will react violently if I eat a ham-clam sandwich in Times Square. If some radical religion said it was an affront to their god if people ate with their right hand,, and then someone eats with their right hand, would the eater be responsible for crazy people acting in crazy ways.

    The people who used the weapons are responsible and the ones who urged their followers to kill are guilty of murder. Irrational extremism is a not a viable defense against a charge of murder.

    Is Bill O’Reilly criminally guilty of causing the death of Dr. Tiller because he referred to Dr. Tiller as “Tiller the baby killer.” I think he is morally guilty, but he did not scream, “Get your gun and go shoot the abortionist. ” The press or YouTube did not keep Terry Jone’s moronic, evil deed to themselves . Yet, they knew the danger when they told the story. Is the press guilty?

    Was the press guilty of reporting Dr. King’s assassination and sparking riots? Dr. King’s killer, James Earl Ray, was guilty of killing Dr. King. I never heard anyone claim he should also have been charged with all the crimes that mob behavior led to.

    Almost done. If you were pastor (not with a capital P) Jone’s attorney, how would you defend him? Do you think you would have a difficult time convincing a judge or jury that burning a book cannot be construed as a a logical cause for murder. Are ediitorial cartoonists barred forever from depicting a diety because a minority of fanatical irrational people had previously gone beserk and killed innocents.

    I am pretty proud to be a consistent liberal. I would not be happy to live in a country where burning a book, any book, any flag, is a crime.

  2. The law presumes a person intends the natural consequences of their actions and holds them responsible accordingly. I don’t see any moral argument to the contrary. In Wisconsin, the definition of criminal recklessness is “the actor creates an unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm to another human being and the actor is aware of that risk. . .”
    That is precisely the case here. The commander on the ground in Afghanistan personally appealed to Jones, telling him that people would likely die if he publicly burned the Koran. He willfully and egotistically proceeded, deliberately considering that the effect on other human beings was less important than his doing what he wanted to do. That is simply impermissible behavior in any civilized society. This is not analogous to any other first amendment situation. I know of no other example in my memory of indirect action so immediately tied to the death of other people. It is more like a mine owner deliberately ignoring mine safety rules than like free speech.

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