(Steve Sebelius/SlashPolitics) – First, let me say I believe absolutely in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Don’t wait for a “but,” or an “except,” or “in some cases.” I don’t have one.
Second, at least one idea arising from the tragic, despicable and apparently premeditated shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., over the weekend would be to extend the provisions of 18 U.S.C. 871 to members of Congress. (That’s the provision of federal law that makes it a crime to use the U.S. mail to threaten the life of the president, the vice president or successors to the president.)
That’s a bad idea. It treads close enough to the First Amendment to at least create myriad appeals for people so convicted. And in an age where overreaction with “zero tolerance” policies produce all manner of absurdities in schools and workplaces, we dare not tread close to the First Amendment.
Third, it’s important to understand that an apparently mentally disturbed young man who’d become obsessed with Giffords shot her. Jared Loughner, 22, of Tucson was described by people who knew him as a loner and an outcast. He’s the one charged with the crime — and the only one — and, if convicted, he be the only one responsible for the rampage that took six lives, including that of a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
As tempting as it may be to blame others, it just doesn’t stick.
It was revealed during her 2008 run for U.S. Senate that Nevada Republican Sharron Angle told a radio interviewer that “…if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?”
(Interestingly, this is precisely the scenario in Arizona: Giffords had defeated a Tea Party-backed candidate in a close race in November, thus ensuring — at least in her district — Congress would keep going the way it was. But it’s impossible to say at this point if Loughner was motivated, or even knew about, any such rhetoric, and much more compelling to believe he was not. In fact, his obsession with Giffords may date to another town hall meeting in 2007, when he attended and asked the congresswoman a bizarre question.)
Moreover, Sarah Palin was fond of enjoining her supports to “don’t retreat, reload!” during her similarly ill-fated run for the vice presidency. She even used a rifle-sight logo during the 2008 election to show she was “targeting” certain races. One of the races that Palin endorsed a GOP challenger was Giffords’s.
But neither Angle nor Palin pulled the trigger on Saturday. Neither Angle nor Palin told Loughner to do what he did.
I wonder if perhaps people such as Angle and Palin — and anybody else who uses the rhetoric of violence in a political context — may want to consider that there are people out there who aren’t quite sane. That these people may interpret that language far more literally than the rest of us, and even act on it, with deadly results. This is especially true in a political and economic environment where desperation is high, reason is scarce and hatred is plentiful.
Following the shooting, the sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, blamed the vitriol in the political arena for the tragedy, saying his state (with its anti-illegal immigration law) had become ground zero for that vitriol. “That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences,” he said.
Indeed, our free speech does have consequences. And while those consequences should never be cause for us to circumscribe our rights, they should at least give us pause before we exercise them. This is America, after all, a democratic republic, where we settle our disputes with ballots, not bullets. Or at least, where we should.