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How Much Responsibility?

June 2nd, 2009

There is a person whom you hate for ideological reasons. To borrow the tobacco analogy from my recent post, let’s say it’s the head of a tobacco giant, someone who you believe has blatantly lied to Congress, paid off politicians, designed cigarettes to addict people more effectively, and focused advertising on kids to get them hooked. You feel that this person is a mass murderer.

So you put him in the spotlight. You rant to a very large audience of passionate fellow travelers, telling them that this person is a mass murderer, and will continue to addict kids and murder people, and is getting away with it cold. So far, socially responsible.

But there’s more to it than that. You know, from experience, that there are people in your audience who are on the extreme fringe, so passionate in their zealotry that they are willing to harm people. You know from experience that these people craft bombs, collect guns, and from time to time, will follow a pointed finger and carry out an assassination. You have seen it happen several times before.

But it’s even more specific than that, in this case: it happened before to the tobacco executive you rant against now, whose office was bombed and who suffered one armed attack on his person already, clearly due to publicity aimed at him.

Far from relenting at this realization, you step on the gas. You continue to broadcast their name with the label “mass murderer,” insist that something should be done to stop them. You graphically relate horrific, bloody scenarios on the air and say this person has the blood on his hands, is a Nazi, a fascist, a baby-killer, and so on. You are fully aware that information about where this person’s home is, where they work, where they go to church, and when they do all of this, this information has been spread among the zealots. Perhaps even you are the one spreading it.

And then when the inevitable day comes when this person is gunned down in cold blood, you express “shock” at the murder, and innocently protest that you had nothing whatsoever to do with the killing.

At what point does criticism cross the line and become incitement to violence?

A story that’s bouncing around the media now is the potential responsibility of people like Bill O’Reilly in Tiller’s murder:

O’Reilly has mentioned Tiller 29 times on his show since 2005, calling the doctor guilty of “Nazi stuff,” a moral equivalent to NAMBLA and al-Qaida, and saying that Tiller “has blood on his hands.”

Media Matters uncovered several video segments from O’Reilly’s show ambushing Tiller and his attorney, as well as a 2006 radio broadcast by O’Reilly where he rants against Tiller, accusing him of fully delivering a baby then drilling a hole in its head, and of pumping money into politics to get himself off the hook legally. He then begins a statement: “And if I could get my hands on Tiller….” At this point, he suddenly backpedals: “well, you know. Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech.” Clearly, his mind strays to violence, a suggestion he immediately recognizes he could be held liable for, thus the backpedaling. But the statement is clear evidence that O’Reilly knew full well what ballpark he was playing in.

O’Reilly, to his credit (using a rather low bar), did not–I think–publish Tiller’s address, though Randall Terry and Operation Rescue did, and the information remained available on pro-life web sites. Tiller has been harassed for years, suffering previous bombings and shootings. The protestations that one could not possibly foresee the result of such vivid, hateful verbal attacks against Tiller resulting in actual violence are, to say the least, untenable. Of course the prolonged public attacks on Tiller would spur violence against him. It already had, more than once. It was only a matter of time before it would happen yet again.

So we return to the question: if prior attention on an individual resulted in violence against them, and you continue to sling the most graphic and hateful accusations imaginable against this person, how complicit are you when the inevitable killing occurs? Can you honestly free yourself of all responsibility by falling short of expressly calling for someone to kill the target of your rage?

There is a mass entanglement of rights and other issues involved, of course. Though free speech does not cover incitement to violence, there is a rather large grey area when you do not specifically incite violence, but rather you do so tangentially. Much depends on what people like O’Reilly and Terry knew, something you can guess at but cannot prove in court.

Of course, O’Reilly and Terry will never suffer criminal consequences of their actions. At the same time, however, I find it impossible to consider that they bear no responsibility for what happened.

Categories: Law, Right-Wing Hypocrisy, Social Issues Tags: by
  1. Tim Kane
    June 3rd, 2009 at 00:03 | #1

    Fox is nothing but right wing political pornography. (Perhaps so is Obermann, but I watch him as often as I can through online streeming).

    If I’m the defense lawyer in this case, I would have my client plead insanity and have him claim that Fox News kept inciting him to kill.

    When Bush was president, they made using curse words on the radio subject to massive fines. Obama can maybe use this incident as a pretext for tighter anti-hate incitement rules on the radio. O’Reilly is on cable T.V. and not subject to such rules there, but his career can be destroyed by imputation and meanwhile hate inciters like Limbaugh and Savage would have a wrench thrown in their works.

    This is, frankly, happening far too often with media associated with Murdock. It wasn’t that long ago when his newspaper in New York had an inflamitory cartoon after a cop shot a monkey and made an inference to Obama.

    Changing rules because of this incident could have several affects: first it would undermine the rash of hate speech coming from Murdock’s media, second it could so tarnish O’Reilly as to end his career, third, guys like Savage and Limbaugh, without hate incitement speech lose much of their traction, and their ratings would go down, and finally people might take a stronger look at themselves and maybe not watch or listen to this crap.

    It’s one thing to read a playboy magazine, it’s another to indulge in pornography. For a long time I’ve thought that Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage and the like are nothing but political pornography.

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