COLUMN: Fears of domestic terrorism threaten our free speech
With the meteoric rise of the tea party and Glenn Beck’s fame and influence within it, liberal commentators have begun to worry about the possibility that Beck’s rhetoric will incite his listeners to commit acts of violence against their political opponents.
Despite Beck’s exhortations to his audience to “reject violence every step of the way,” since “violence will destroy the republic,” his critics are not convinced.
Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks and MSNBC claimed Beck is “going to get somebody really hurt ... he’s inciting people.”
David Sirota at Alternet is forceful in his condemnation, asking “What is the difference between Beck’s decree and that of Rwanda’s genocidal leaders in the 1990s? The former broadcast a call to ‘eradicate’ the ‘cancer’-like progressives; the latter a call to ‘exterminate the cockroaches.’”
They have a point. The rhetorical skill and vehemence it takes to inspire a terrorist is not great. Take for instance the recent eco-terrorist attack Sept. 2 at the Discovery Communications headquarters.
Citing the Al Gore PowerPoint presentation “An Inconvenient Truth” and Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael,” a book about a telepathic gorilla with a beef against agriculture, James J. Lee entered the Discovery Channel’s building in Rockville, Md., armed with a gun and several bombs. He held three hostages in a standoff with police for four hours until he was shot by a police sniper.
Lee had left a manifesto at savetheplanetprotest.com, in which he demands that the Discovery Channel change its programming to oppose the “breeding of disgusting human babies.” He goes on to assert that “Humans are the most destructive, filthy, pollutive creatures around and are wrecking what’s left of the planet with their false morals and breeding culture ... The planet does not need humans.”
Lee was convinced by the rhetoric of environmentalists like Gore and Quinn that human resource consumption poses a growing threat to the earth that must be stopped immediately by any means necessary.
Most of us would not think of our drawling ex-vice president and his slideshows as electrifying and bombastic enough to warrant violent action, but violent extremists can and will find a way to weaponize anyone’s rhetoric provided the ideology is extreme enough, a bar low enough to include Al Gore’s environmentalism.
Barring cases of outright encouragement to commit terrorism, it is not the rhetoric of ideologues that causes violence, but the fervor of their followers.
In the U.S., we are fortunate enough to harbor a healthy aversion to restrictions on free speech and the bullying of public figures we disagree with.
Our neighbors to the north are not so lucky.
Under the Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977, it is illegal to distribute by phone or Internet information “that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” Enforcement is accomplished through trials by the Human Rights Tribunal — in which hearsay is accepted as evidence, truth is not a defense and plaintiffs are given the power of investigators and access to Commission files.
The Commission has the power to issue gag orders and in the past forced defendants to apologize for statements they still agreed with. The attitude of the Tribunal can be summed up by investigator Dean Steacy, who stated during a recent case, “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”
It is not unthinkable that domestic terrorists could use almost any public thinker’s ideas as a reason to carry out attacks.
This is not a reason to attack speakers you disagree with. Those who claim that public figures like Beck could cause domestic terrorism produce a chilling effect by which almost any criticism of the current administration is considered potentially dangerous.
At worst, they stoke a climate of fear that could pave the way for Canadian-style restrictions on our constitutional rights.