The dangers of political hate speech

by Jim Longworth

Last Fall, NC Republicans ran an attack ad against Democrat House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, saying the incumbent was soft on crime. The mailer warned, “Thanks to Hugh Holliman, death-row inmates can leave prison early and move in next door to you.”

First of all, the ad was false. Holliman is a proponent of the death penalty. Second it was cruel. Holliman’s 16-year-old daughter was raped and murdered back in 1985, and Holliman witnessed the execution of her killer.

State GOP chairman Tom Fetzer was forced to issue a lame apology, saying he was sorry if the ad “caused Holliman any anguish.”

“If”? There was no “if” about it. The ad DID cause Holliman anguish, and it cost him his job. Apparently the lame brains who received the mailer don’t read small-print, hollow apologies in the newspaper, because Holliman lost the election.

Last year I called for the FEC and FCC to levy massive fines against candidates and campaigns who publish or broadcast false and hateful information. My proposal fell on deaf ears. Politicians, especially Republicans and tea -arty reactionaries, don’t seem to think hate speech is wrong, nor do they believe it can affect those it is intended for or directed at. And so, 2010 was a veritable bubbling cauldron of vitriolic language and violent imagery leading up to the mid term elections.

Sarah Palin published gun-sight crosshairs over key democratic districts, and advised her followers not to retreat, but to “reload.” Not suprisingly, two of the democratic congressmen Palin targeted received death threats, and a third, Gabrielle Giffords, was actually shot.

Giffords was meeting constituents last week at an outdoor event in Tuscon, Ariz. when Jared Loughner opened fire, killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl who had been born on Sept. 11, 2001. The irony of her death is inescapable. In all, 20 people were shot, and Giffords is still clinging to life.

Many of us on the left concluded that Loughner was influenced by the kind of hate speech spewed by Palin, Glen Beck and FOX News. And while the accused denied any culpability, they started backtracking. FOX chief Roger Ailes ordered his goons to tone down the rhetoric for awhile, and Palin removed all gun-related imagery from her website. But the gestures were as hollow as Tom Fetzer’s apology to Hugh Holliman, because none of these hateful people intend to change their approach one iota. Palin in her scripted, on-air statement about the Tuscon shooting couldn’t even wait a day before stirring up more hatred. She referred to liberal pundits as having committed “blood libel,” a term that refers to anti-semites who used to accuse Jews of killing Christian children, and using their blood for rituals.

Let me be clear about something: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh did not tell Jared Loughner to go on a shooting spree. They must, however, accept responsibility for the environment of hate and misinformation that they have created in this country, and the effect it can have on uniformed and easily swayed individuals. But instead of reforming their vitriolic ways, Republicans and tea partiers once again have blinders on about how to fix what’s wrong in our country. For example, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert wants congressmen to be allowed to carry firearms onto the House floor. His thinking is that more guns will prevent killings. Go figure.

Since last week, scores of columnists and public officials have offered their analysis of the Tucson tragedy, several of which struck me as particularly insightful. Keith Oberman of MSNBC observed, “The Palins, the Becks and the O’Reillys provide the oxygen to those deep in madness.”

Columnist Michael Arceneaux wrote, “The likes of Loughner do not draw their obsessions with violence out of thin air. They draw their vocabulary and imagery from the current political culture. Palin and her tea party brethren are the ones dangerously fanning the flames.”

Prima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik condemned “the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio and TV business, especially the influence it may have on unbalanced people like the Tucson shooter.”

And, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, Giffords herself weighed in on this matter back in March of 2010, saying, “We need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up, for example Sarah Palin targeting me with crosshairs of a gun sight… when people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to those actions.”

Sadly I don’t think the hate speakers and their listeners have learned anything substantive from last week’s shooting. Some have even criticized President Obama for turning the memorial into a pep rally. At that service, Obama took a moment to announce to the crowd that, “Gabby has opened her eyes”.

It remains to be seen whether this tragedy will open ours.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).