Feathered Bastard

Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner, and the First Amendment

The call has come, from CNN and The New York Times to innumerable liberals, to "ramp down" the rhetoric and invective of politics in Arizona and the United States in general.

The implication is that right-wing, extremist propaganda led to the massacre in Tucson on Saturday.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik helped facilitate this meme with his comments during two news conferences over the past couple of days.

In them, he called Arizona the "Tombstone of America" and the "Mecca" of bigotry, an idea I've offered up in opinion columns for several years now, albeit in different ways.

He also made the following observation, which I think is accurate:

"To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with."

And yet, it has yet to be demonstrated with certainty that Loughner was inspired by rightist, wing-nut rhetoric.

But even if such a connection is firmly established, it should not dampen vigorous public debate, which can get outlandish, mean, and over-the-top, particularly on talk radio.

So far, alleged shooter Jared Loughner seems to be closer to the likes of Mark David Chapman (the killer of John Lennon) and John Hinckley (the wanna-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan), than John Wilkes Booth (President Abraham Lincoln's assassin) or Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber). 

McVeigh and Booth were true believers, and neither was insane. 

Chapman and Hinckley, however, were clearly delusional. Both were motivated, in part, not by "hate speech" but by J.D. Salinger's novel of adolescent rebellion The Catcher in the Rye.

Hinckley also was inspired, if you can use that term here, by Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver, and by an unusual obsession with one of the film's stars, a young Jodie Foster.

So the question becomes, what speech exactly do you want to inhibit and why?

Because, to alter a phrase from the gun-totin' right, it's not words that kill people, but bullets and bombs and gas chambers and lethal injections.

The 9/11 hijackers found their rationale for terrorism in the Qu'ran.

Killers of abortion doctors and bombers of family planning clinics have been driven by what they say is Biblical dictate.

During the 1980s, radical feminists and Christian nutjobs joined together to ban such relatively innocent adult fare as Playboy from college campuses. Their rationale? Such material caused oversexed men to rape women.

What then is beyond the pale? Where I'm going is, there's a slippery slope involved.

Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy sought to wrench all Communist influence from government and society during the 1950s. Even those who read Karl Marx and found some truth in his ideas, were considered security threats.

Along the same lines, neo-Nazis espouse hatred toward nonwhites and Jews. Would you deny them the First Amendment right to march and rally in Phoenix as they did so in November?

That event led to a near-riot between the swastika-lickers and anarchists in the streets. Carrying swastika flags could then be considered, hypothetically, an incitement to riot.

But the answer to neo-Nazis is not banning them or even saying the neo-Nazis should not rally.

Rather than suppress speech, the better response is to meet what you consider as nefarious speech with more speech, better speech, positive speech, speech that counters racist canards spouted by the SS-wannabes.

See, here in Arizona, there are very real ideas at war with each other.

Some on the right hate all government influence, or at least the government influence that does not benefit them directly.

Still others despise "illegals," or Hispanics as a whole. So much so that they are willing to pass unconstitutional and bigoted laws such as SB 1070, or ones that aim to undermine the U.S. Constitution: Specifically, the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship clause.

These efforts must be opposed in the most outspoken and strident manner possible, as they were recently when the Phoenix human rights group Puente protested outside a private, Paradise Valley home, where scores of lobbyists attended, paying at least $250 a pop, to kiss the ring of state Senate President-elect Russell Pearce.

The demonstration was peaceful, but attendees no doubt felt intimidated as they had to walk a gauntlet of protesters inundating them with insults and anti-Pearce chants.

Was this wrong? Of course it wasn't. Nor do I have a problem with lobbyists and corporate shills feeling uncomfortable attending such a pro-Pearce event. 

True, no one was shot at or killed. But there were references to the lobbyists being Nazi-like. And you could consider that unfair. Because no matter how hateful and unjust Arizona's stance toward the undocumented is, people are being deported. They are not being shoved into ovens. A huge difference.

I'm saying, be careful what you wish for, lefties, as it can come back to sink its molars into your hind sections. The desire for civility may be a noble one, but civility can be a mask for numerous misdeeds and injustices. 

After all, who among you has the inclination to be "civil" toward Pearce? This guy deserves all the verbal pushback and political censure possible. Just remember, do it with a smile and in a nonthreatening manner. Don't give the other side an excuse to lie about what you're there for.

One last note on Sarah Palin's map targeting Democrats with gun sights. Thing is, New Times has used similar imagery in regards to former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Did New Times want anyone to come to harm? Absolutely not. It's called a metaphor. The idea being that a politico is "targeted" through investigation or political means.

Which is why I am so adamant about rejecting what to me sounds very similar to a call for censorship, or a witch hunt seeking to lay the blame. Because one day it's the language of the right, the Tea Baggers, and so on. And the next day, it's anyone else who has expressed an un-PC opinion.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons

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