Rhetoric not to be blamed for acts of violence

By Lucas Coughlin

(The Colorado Springs Police Honor Guard carries in the casket of Garrett Swasey, the 44-year-old University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer and six-year veteran of the department, during the funeral service at New Life Church on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Swasey was killed Nov. 27 after responding to a shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, which left two others dead and 12 injured. Stacie Scott/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS)
(The Colorado Springs Police Honor Guard carries in the casket of Garrett Swasey, the 44-year-old University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer and six-year veteran of the department, during the funeral service at New Life Church on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Swasey was killed Nov. 27 after responding to a shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, which left two others dead and 12 injured. Stacie Scott/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS)

In the wake of the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, there was a concerted effort among liberal media and politicians to pin the attack on two things.

One of them, predictably, was insufficient restriction of Second Amendment rights.

The other alleged cause of the shooting is incendiary right-wing rhetoric, especially related to the dissemination of videos highlighting the grisly practices of certain Planned Parenthood clinics. Bernie Sanders, in relation to the attacks, said in a press release that he hopes, “people realize that bitter rhetoric can have unintended consequences.”

This line of reasoning is referred to colloquially as the “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” argument, and its implication is that those who engage in polemics are essentially liable when someone commits an act of violence in the name of the speaker’s cause.

Sanders is, of course, not the only politician to use this kind of logic. Chris Christie was one of many conservatives to suggest that Black Lives Matter was at least partially responsible for various police murders during 2015. Politicians of both left and right blamed overheated partisanship for the 2011 shooting of then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

Every public tragedy is a Rorschach test in which partisan people see their own biases confirmed in an inkblot of insanity and evil. Unless there is evidence of conspiracy behind the attacks or specific cases where speakers directly called for violence against a certain target, observers should refrain from blaming large groups, social movements, religions, et cetera, for the actions of an individual.

The left’s collective indictment of certain speech as the impetus for the Colorado Springs attack is unsurprising; the Second Amendment is not the only item in the Bill of Rights they oppose.

Progressives have long envied the “hate-speech” laws on the books in Europe, and the campaign to outlaw unsavory speech is often tied to the threat of precipitant violence. In fact, the “fire in a crowded theater” canard comes directly from a line in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ majority opinion in the 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States. This ruling upheld Woodrow Wilson’s execrable Espionage Act of 1917, which allowed for the jailing of anti-war activists, most of who were socialists like plaintiff Charles Schenck and famed activist and presidential candidate Eugene Debs. For a self-declared socialist like Bernie Sanders to be applauding this same line of thinking is a revealing bit of historical irony.

Progressives today seem to believe that humans are essentially malleable, and as such must be protected from bad influences. The censorious impulse that once sought to ban novels like “Ulysses” and “Lolita” is evident now in the demand to prevent people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Christina Hoff Summers from speaking on college campuses.

It is also evident in the infamous “Citizens United” case, the controversial campaign-finance decision that at its heart is actually about the right of a group to air a film criticizing Hillary Clinton. Really, the clamoring over SuperPacs and “dark money” is just another example of the left’s condescending attitude towards the average American, as if one too many Koch-sponsored ads will flip votes from Hillary to Trump (not that the Koch brothers would ever support Trump).

From decrying offensive or “problematic” television to suggesting that speech is violence per se, it is the goal of the paternal state and its supporters to keep its children-citizens from being exposed to naughty ideas. We will have to think for ourselves or elect the new censors to do our thinking for us.

Lucas Coughlin is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]