Mak­ing sense of sense­less shoot­ing

The path be­tween an­gry rhetoric and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence is a slip­pery slope

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Robert Charles Robert Charles is a for­mer as­sis­tant secretary of state for international nar­cotics and law en­force­ment in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

There are events that force a “time out.” One just oc­curred. Paus­ing to think about it, is worth the time. Five hard truths come into sharp fo­cus with the June 15 shoot­ing of a Repub­li­can con­gress­man, staff and sup­port­ers at the most Amer­i­can of ac­tiv­i­ties — prac­tice for a friendly con­gres­sional base­ball game.

First, the gun­man, while ob­vi­ously de­ranged, was also plainly im­pas­sioned, in­tensely mo­ti­vated — at least in some ma­jor part — by in­grained po­lit­i­cal an­i­mus.

To be painfully spe­cific, based on his so­cial me­dia post­ings, he blamed Repub­li­cans at large, and Pres­i­dent Trump in par­tic­u­lar, for be­ing a “traitor” and “racist.”

Sec­ond, a num­ber of open, self-iden­ti­fied “left,” “left lean­ing,” “left­ist” and “lib­eral” me­dia out­lets have, in re­cent months, run hard-hit­ting ar­ti­cles, editorials and opin­ion pieces iden­ti­fy­ing “Pres­i­dent Trump,” and “Repub­li­cans” specif­i­cally in these ex­act terms, as “traitors” and “racists.”

Not to be­la­bor the point, but a sim­ple Google search iden­ti­fies spe­cific sto­ries that de­scribe Repub­li­cans and Mr. Trump in these terms, of­ten with head­lines that cause a ca­sual reader to wince.

Some of these very pop­u­lar left-lean­ing sites and pub­li­ca­tions even re­cite the le­gal def­i­ni­tion of “traitor,” then em­broi­der it with highly in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric and opin­ions, at­tempt­ing to make the case for uniden­ti­fied action, but call­ing for “ac­tive re­sis­tance.”

Third, none of these in­flam­ma­tory “ar­ti­cles” and opin­ion pieces — as far as I can dis­cover — ac­tu­ally called for “im­mi­nent law­less action,” some­thing for­bid­den un­der the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, il­le­gal and un­pro­tected by con­sti­tu­tional right, in­clud­ing the First Amend­ment.

What is a call to “im­mi­nent law­less action?” Ac­cord­ing to a long line of Supreme Court cases, more or less end­ing with Bran­den­burg v. Ohio (1969), a call to “im­mi­nent law­less action” in­volves “in­cite­ment to vi­o­lence” that is both “im­mi­nent and likely.”

So, fourth, thor­oughly and ex­pressly for­bid­den is “ad­vo­cacy of force or crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity” — by any­one — aimed at “in­cit­ing” law­less­ness, and as­sessed as “likely” to pro­duce it.

Where that hap­pens, the law kicks in and kicks in hard. That goes for in­cite­ment to vi­o­lence on col­lege cam­puses, by news­pa­pers, blogs, col­lec­tive or in­di­vid­ual, pri­vate or pub­lic fo­rums and, of course, at a con­gres­sional or any base­ball games. Frus­trat­ingly to many, but con­sis­tent with our na­tion’s First Amend­ment pro­tec­tion of free ex­pres­sion, Amer­i­cans can call each other ugly names, in­sult one another vo­cif­er­ously, go eye­ball to eye­ball with dero­ga­tions, and ex­press opin­ions that be­come rude, of­fen­sive, base­less, un­grounded, ill-ad­vised, undig­ni­fied and down­right dispir­it­ing.

We are fully al­lowed to be fool­ish, wrong, overly emo­tional, em­bar­rass­ingly self-serv­ing, po­lit­i­cally charged, or to ex­press our in­ner feel­ings and most fan­ci­ful opin­ions.

Up to a point.

State and fed­eral gov­ern­ments, in a phrase “We, the Peo­ple,” have also over 225 years learned there is wis­dom in plac­ing “time, place and man­ner” re­stric­tions on what we say, when, where, to whom and how. Cir­cum­stances do mat­ter.

Defama­tion is not per­mit­ted. Fa­mously, no yelling “fire in a crowded theater” and no “in­cite­ment” to law­less­ness and vi­o­lence. No ad­vo­cacy of harm to­ward one another is per­mit­ted, not in any way meant to spur re­course to force.

Which brings us back to last week’s tragedy. Some­how, in the emo­tional froth and fury of an un­usu­ally tense po­lit­i­cal sea­son, a hard-fought elec­tion that ended with a hard land­ing for one can­di­date, some seem to for­get a sem­i­nal fact: We are, we must be, we are ob­li­gated to be, both his­tory and the fu­ture ex­pect us to be, a civil so­ci­ety.

So, fifth and fi­nally, the obli­ga­tion to main­tain and par­tic­i­pate in civil so­ci­ety — which as Amer­i­cans we are signed up to do — has prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

In­cite­ment is a le­gal term, but the ap­proach to it oc­curs by de­grees. It can sneak up on a so­ci­ety, just as we let our­selves go by de­grees.

We edge up to in­cite­ment. And do­ing that can have pro­found ef­fects. It can be pro­foundly reck­less, no mat­ter how strongly held our po­lit­i­cal opin­ions.

Do­ing so in­vites re­duced ci­vil­ity, and egre­gious, some­times ir­re­versible mis­un­der­stand­ings, mis­takes and some­times tragedy. This is not opin­ion. It is a fact.

Be­ing in­dif­fer­ent to the ef­fect that words have ac­tu­ally does not make a good case. It threat­ens to bring us all down, left, right and cen­ter, es­pe­cially when we see some­thing like what hap­pened last week.

De­spite all, some will ig­nore the sig­nif­i­cance of this event. They will in­sist on politi­ciz­ing this tragedy in one way or another. Nev­er­the­less, at this mo­ment, two in­no­cent Amer­i­cans lie in the hospi­tal.

Their tragedy is our tragedy. Their loss is our loss, a re­flec­tion of grow­ing tol­er­ance for what is in­tol­er­a­ble, col­lec­tive in­dif­fer­ence to the obli­ga­tion of main­tain­ing civil or­der.

We have a right, even an obli­ga­tion to vo­cally dis­agree if we feel we should and must. We are within our rights to ar­gue, to be of­fen­sive, and to be an­i­mated by what­ever opin­ions we thought­fully hold.

But when reck­less in­dif­fer­ence to words bridges into open vi­o­lence, we have al­lowed our civil so­ci­ety to go a crit­i­cal step to far.

Now is upon us all — start­ing with po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in both par­ties — to pull back from the sort of rhetoric that in­flames and es­ca­lates a propen­sity to vi­o­lence. We can all feel it. It needs to be con­sciously, di­rectly and con­sis­tently tamped down.

The pres­i­dent — whether you like him or dis­like him — is not a “traitor,” nor a “racist,” and most Amer­i­cans know that. Nor is Rep. Steve Scalise, who now fights for his life in a Wash­ing­ton hospi­tal bed, in se­ri­ous con­di­tion from a sense­less act of po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated vi­o­lence. Maybe it is time we took a “time out,” and just re­mem­bered again, what is means to be an Amer­i­can.

We edge up to in­cite­ment. And do­ing that can have pro­found ef­fects. It can be pro­foundly reck­less, no mat­ter how strongly held our po­lit­i­cal opin­ions.

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