I’m not a lawyer, but I have a question. Maybe two.
Inciting someone to break the law – that’s a crime, right? (I know, the Brandenburg test leans heavily on “imminent,” so this is fuzzy, I guess. “Clear and present danger” is also a layer of fur to pick through.)
And you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater, right?
Free speech isn’t absolute. You can’t say things that inspire others to commit mayhem (in principle, anyway – the application of the law certainly provides a lot of wiggle room for the culprit).
The concept before us this morning, in light of the shootings in Colorado Springs, is “stochastic terrorism“:
Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.
The writer of this piece is onto something important.
This is what occurs when Bin Laden releases a video that stirs random extremists halfway around the globe to commit a bombing or shooting.
And it applies directly to the events in Colorado Springs.
The formula is perversely brilliant:
- A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
- With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
- Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
- When violence erupts, the public figure who have incited the violence condemn it—claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”
We can be confident that communications teams for Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and others are scrambling at this very moment to figure out the nuances of plausible deniability—weighing how best to distance themselves from the violence that killed a police officer and two others without making their protestations of surprised dismay sound as hollow as they actually are—without actually denouncing the disgust and dehumanization of women who have abortions and those who provide them.
For months, Republican presidential candidates and conservative Christian members of Congress have been following this script for political gain. Elected Republicans in the states have sought to intimidate women and providers by demanding the release (and even publication) of identifying information and addresses—essentially a target list for perpetrators. They know exactly what they are doing.
The “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts” hoax has been repeated over and over by cynical, pathologically dishonest politicians pandering to “low-information voters” (a charitable euphemism for “willfully and gleefully ignorant”), with Rubio and, even more famously, Fiorina (whose performance in the first GOP presidential debate played like a Joe Isuzu commercial), being front and center right now.
When you incite to crime, when you tell inflammatory lies designed to stir up anger amongst a hateful and lackwitted audience, it’s only a matter of time before one of them – or more – take matters into their own hands.
Like Robert Dear did this week.
So, to my questions.
First: Are Rubio and Fiorina (and a horde of their co-conspirators) going to be prosecuted for murder?
I know, I know. That was a rhetorical question.
Second: Shouldn’t they be?
This is one isn’t rhetorical at all. When murder happens because you wound up the killer with a pack of inflammatory, demonstrable falsehoods, you’re holding the gun as he pulls the trigger.
But hey, if it isn’t a crime to gin up false evidence in making a case for war against Iraq, a war that killed upwards of 150,000 innocent civilians – many of them women and children – what are a few dead people (one of them a police officer) in a health services clinic between political rivals?