Po­lit­i­cal rhetoric from Left takes omi­nous turn

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

In the past few weeks, lead­ing Democrats in Congress have called Tea Party mem­bers ter­ror­ists, said they should go to hell and ac­cused them of want­ing to lynch black peo­ple. Last week­end at an event at­tended by Pres­i­dent Obama, the head of the Team­sters Union, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., at­tacked the Tea Party, scream­ing, “Pres­i­dent Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these sons of bitches [Tea Party mem­bers] out and give Amer­ica back to an Amer­ica where we be­long.” (Note: The pres­i­dent was not on the plat­form when Mr. Hoffa spoke.)

So far, nei­ther the pres­i­dent nor any prom­i­nent Demo­crat has con­demned such re­marks — even though the phrase “take out” is com­monly used to de­scribe an act of crim­i­nal homi­cide. Thus, Mr. Hoffa’s state­ment might rise to the level of in­cite­ment to vi­o­lence.

Of course, the First Amend­ment pro­tects po­lit­i­cal speech — even ob­nox­ious and abu­sive lan­guage. But the Supreme Court has al­ways rec­og­nized that some words are not pro­tected. Thus, in Vir­ginia v. Black (2003), the Supreme Court found that while “The First Amend­ment af­fords pro­tec­tion to sym­bolic or ex­pres­sive con­duct as well as to ac­tual speech . . . the pro­tec­tions af­forded by the First Amend­ment, how­ever, are not ab­so­lute, and we have long rec­og­nized that the govern­ment may reg­u­late cer­tain cat­e­gories of ex­pres­sion con­sis­tent with the Con­sti­tu­tion.” Thus, for ex­am­ple, a state may pun­ish those words that “by their very ut­ter­ance in­flict in­jury or tend to incite an im­me­di­ate breach of the peace,” the court said in Bran­den­burg v. Ohio (1969). And the First Amend­ment also per­mits a state to ban a “true threat.” Such speech en­com­passes those state­ments in which the speaker means to com­mu­ni­cate a se­ri­ous ex­pres­sion of an in­tent to com­mit an act of un­law­ful vi­o­lence to a par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­ual or group of in­di­vid­u­als. (Po­lit­i­cal hy­per­bole is not a “true threat.”) The speaker need not ac­tu­ally in­tend to carry out the threat. Rather, the court said, a pro­hi­bi­tion on true threats “pro­tect[s] in­di­vid­u­als from the fear of vi­o­lence” and “from the dis­rup­tion that fear en­gen­ders,” in ad­di­tion to pro­tect­ing peo­ple “from the pos­si­bil­ity that the threat­ened vi­o­lence will oc­cur.”

Tea Party mem­bers could rea­son­ably feel fear of vi­o­lence from union ac­tivists af­ter Mr. Hoffa’s call to “take out” Tea Party mem­bers. Given the his­tory of vi­o­lence as­so­ci­ated with unions in gen­eral and the Team­sters in par­tic­u­lar. (Mr. Hoffa’s fa­ther, also pres­i­dent of Team­sters, is widely be­lieved to have been mur­dered by fel­low Team­sters.) Of course, both the Michi­gan at­tor­ney gen­eral and the U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral would need to as­sess the spe­cific statutes to see whether Mr. Hoffa’s words are crim­i­nally pro­scribed. (Yes, I know it is un­likely that At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. would fol­low this sug­ges­tion — more’s the pity.)

Whether Mr. Hoffa’s words are crim­i­nal or not, the emerg­ing tone of the Demo­cratic Party re­gard­ing the Tea Party is omi­nous with the use of words like “ter­ror­ist,” “lynch­ing,” “go to hell,” “take them out.” It is the lan­guage of mur­der­ous vi­o­lence, and it is tar­geted at a spe­cific group of peo­ple. Most dis­turb­ing is the fail­ure of Demo­cratic Party lead­ers to con­demn such lan­guage, in­clud­ing the chair­man of the Demo­cratic National Com­mit­tee, Debbie Wasser­man Schultz.

On national tele­vi­sion, she specif­i­cally and re­peat­edly evaded any com­ment on Mr. Hoffa’s state­ment. No pres­i­dent or other party leader can be held re­spon­si­ble for the ut­ter­ances of all of his po­lit­i­cal col­leagues, nor can he be ex­pected to re­spond to ev­ery in­tem­per­ate word. But when the words are by other party lead­ers them­selves and are na­tion­ally re­ported, a moral obli­ga­tion arises to con­demn such lan­guage.

One would have to be stub­bornly blind and deaf to the cur­rent mood not to sense that the na­tion is mov­ing to­ward one of the most com­bustible mo­ments in our po­lit­i­cal his­tory. We’ve had three years of eco­nomic hard times, deep and per­haps un­prece­dented national pes­simism re­gard­ing both the present and the fu­ture, an­gry po­lar­iza­tion of po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes — and el­e­ments of se­nior lead­er­ship of the Demo­cratic Party that, by its si­lence, might seem to be assent­ing to such ex­pres­sions. All of this comes as we en­ter an al­ways emo­tional national elec­tion cam­paign.

It is a com­mon­place to ob­serve that we rarely ap­pre­ci­ate the value of what we have un­til we lose it. And de­spite all our cur­rent dif­fi­cul­ties, Amer­ica has been — and re­mains — blessed with a non­vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal and elec­toral process. We should cling to that tra­di­tion with both hands be­cause Amer­i­cans are gen­er­ally a rough and ready peo­ple.

That we have kept vi­o­lence largely out of our po­lit­i­cal process can thus al­most be seen as prov­i­den­tial.

We should not, how­ever, rely on prov­i­dence in that re­gard. Keep­ing our pol­i­tics peace­ful is up to each of us — and I have never seen an up­com­ing po­lit­i­cal sea­son more in need of our at­ten­tion to that civic duty.

Tony Blank­ley is the author of “Amer­i­can Grit: What It Will Take to Sur­vive and Win in the 21st Cen­tury” (Reg­n­ery, 2009) and vice pres­i­dent of the Edel­man pub­lic re­la­tions firm in Washington.

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