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Putting a Bullseye on the Constitution

There is hardly a better way to degrade the entire idea of political speech than by classing everyone who is in any way critical of the government as "anti-government". Such a label creates two camps, the camp of government and the camp of everyone unhappy with government, and defines the latter camp by the actions of a psychotic killer, who was unhappy with government, grammar and higher mathematics, among a seemingly inexhaustible supply of other things. Such a course is not only intellectually dishonest, it is also far more dangerous than slapping a bullseye across a congressman.

A bullseye on a single politician endangers only that politician, but criminalizing political speech ultimately endangers every politician and the First Amendment. If Jared Loughner took aim and fired at a Republican judge and a Democratic congresswoman, those in the majority party who are trying to use him as an excuse for undermining free speech, are taking aim and firing at the United States Constitution and the freedoms that make democracy possible.

After 9/11, some liberals claimed that the Bush Administration was tearing up the Constitution over the deaths of a few thousand people by an organized worldwide terrorist network. Yet now they feel compelled to attack the 1st and 2nd amendments of the Bill of Rights over the deaths of a far smaller number of people at the hands of madman who acted alone. And it isn't the first time.

In 2007, Carlos Hartmann murdered a Dutch student, because according to his lawyer, "he hates soldiers, and says that the army kills people, so it would be legitimate if he were also to kill someone … from the American military — or from its NATO allies." I don't recall any Republican congressmen suggesting that maybe Michael Moore and his ilk should tone it down a little or asked whether Hartmann had been influenced by the extreme anti-war rhetoric of the left, even though Hartmann, unlike Loughner, actually seemed to be operating on the same track. If we go by the low standard of proof being deployed in the Loughner case, then Michael Moore and every prominent anti-war activist in America should take responsibility for their excessive tone and rhetoric that might have contributed to the murder of Thijs Geers.

That's the problem with speaking censoriously about the threat of "Dangerous Words". Much like proposing to repeal the filibuster, it's one of those moves that works only for as long as your party is the majority party. We don't need the 1st Amendment to protect the political speech of those in power and their supporters. There isn't a country in the world where that's in danger. We could tear up the Constitution tomorrow with  complete confidence that the rights of those in power will not be infringed on in any way. What we need the 1st Amendment for is to protect the speech of those who aren't in power, whether it's the political opposition or the ordinary citizen angry at the government.

The idea that we should compromise the first two amendments of the Bill of Rights because of the actions of a madman is untenable. And for the ruling party to trade in rhetoric that undermines the protections of the Bill of Rights for political gain or personal power is a horrifying act that should be universally condemned. Jared Loughner might not have known what he was doing, but the ruling party politicians who are trading on his crime in order to suppress free speech have no such defense at their disposal. They know exactly what they are doing by promoting the idea that vocally criticizing the government is a dangerous act. Criticizing the government is indeed a dangerous act, in the People's Republic of China, in Zimbabwe, Belarus or the UAE. In America however, criticizing the government is not a crime, but a civic duty.

Free speech is not the cause of political violence-- it is the best way of averting a culture of political violence. The freedom to condemn and vote out politicians is the reason why we generally have so little actual political violence. So long as reform is possible and the policies of one administration can be undone by another, and the ballot box, the Supreme Court and the Constitution serve as checks on the power of government-- then terrorism will never become a means by which Americans will try to change the system. But globally, criminalizing political dissent has often opened the door to political violence. Using force against the opposition results in a cycle of violence with no off switch.

It is clear by now that Loughner had issues with Congresswoman Gifford that long predated Sarah Palin's presence on the national stage, and that his politics were an incoherent schizophrenic mess produced by misfiring chemicals not vocal talk show hosts. To the extent that he could be said to have politics, they were more left than right, but mostly topsy turvy. Yet even if Loughner were everything that some Democrats have painted him as. If he had spent every day listening to Rush Limbaugh and every night listening to Glenn Beck. If he stumped for Sarah Palin and dressed up as Patrick Henry to attend Tea Party rallies-- then the response should still be exactly the same.

It has never been the American tradition to hold an entire political party responsible for a violent act by one of its supporters. If we had done things that way, then we would have run out of political parties in the 19th century. For that matter we have not even held entire parties responsible for acts committed by their own officials. When Aaron Burr, a former Vice President murdered Alexander Hamilton, his entire party was not held responsible for the act. In the 19th century, when Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat Republican Senator Charles Sumner  into unconsciousness in the Senate chamber-- we did not dismantle the entire Democratic party. Even though he was aided in the assault by another Democratic congressman who leveled a gun at other congressmen on the scene.

The very idea that we should outlaw violent metaphors in political speech is a sign of contempt for the character and morals of the American citizen. And as has been amply demonstrated by now, no single party has a monopoly on such metaphors. The American people are not children, nor are they a country of madmen one wrong syllable away from going after each other's throats. To think that way is to grant implicit consent to tyranny, for what better foundation can there be for tyranny than the assumption that men and women cannot govern themselves, and instead must be governed unconsensually for their own protection.

Protection can be a dangerous thing. The policies that one party considers protective, the opposition often considers repressive. The Bush Administration argued that its policies were there to protect Americans, while its liberal opposition charged that they were repressive. The Obama Administration has claimed that its imposition of ObamaCare was done to protect Americans, while its conservative opposition has branded them repressive. But the acid test of repression is not the word, but the deed. It was difficult to show how the average American lost rights under the Bush Administration, but when every American is forced to pay money to the political donors of the Democratic party by way of the ObamaCare mandate, then the case is easy enough to make. And when the administration's media organs then compound this by politicizing a madman's attack in order to suppress criticism of their policies, then they slide further into the repression column.

The Democrats who have jumped on the Loughner shootings would argue that such criticism is dangerous, but that is not so. It is the lack of such criticism that is truly dangerous. The United States may occasionally lose an elected official to an attack, but it has not had mobs battling tanks in the streets, physical brawls in congress or a domestic terrorist group with a wide base of support in some time. Americans watch such scenes on television happening in other countries, without taking part in them. But those politicians who yammer on about the need to ban dangerous words, would undermine the open system that is the best defense against political violence, and risk importing political violence into the United States, replacing dangerous words with dangerous deeds. While the murder of a judge and the wounding of a congresswoman are crimes to be condemned, they do not threaten our freedoms and our way of life. But putting a bullseye on the Constitution may not spill any blood, threatens not just the victims of a single crime, but us all.


  1. Melissa12/1/11

    I actually stayed up late to check your blog for this post, and was rewarded with another superbly written essay. I'm sharing the heck out of it.

  2. thank you, I'll try to update earlier then

  3. It is difficult to say better. Thank you.

  4. I found your site from a link on another post and I'm not disappointed. Great essay.

  5. "We don't need the 1st Amendment to protect the political speech of those in power and their supporters. There isn't a country in the world where that's in danger. We could tear up the Constitution tomorrow with complete confidence that the rights of those in power will not be infringed on in any way. What we need the 1st Amendment for is to protect the speech of those who aren't in power, whether it's the political opposition or the ordinary citizen angry at the government."

    Well said! Thank you for stating the case so clearly.


  6. Lev, I'm sure someone could do it. But I'm glad you like it.

    srdem65, thanks for stopping by

    Margaret, thank you, sometimes people need to be reminded.

  7. One remark on an otherwise great essay:
    It was difficult to show how the average American lost rights under the Bush Administration...

    Can you say "Patriot Act"?

    Listen to what judge Andrew Napolitano had to say in 2007, and find out what rights the Average American lost under Bush:
    http://dutchconcerns.blogspot.com/2008/01/nation-of-sheep.html (40 mins, worth your while)

    "Who [is] the greatest violator of the Constitution?" asks Napolitano. "George W. Bush has shown less fidelity to the Constitution than any president since Abraham Lincoln." (October 2007)

    Of course, and then came Obama, who, as an unconstitutional POTUS has even less respect for the Constitution, but that's not the point. Point is that it's not difficult at all to show how the average American lost rights under the Bush Administration.

    American Freedom is in the process of being demolished by its own 'leaders' for quite some time now.

  8. Napolitano has rather little credibility in that regard, and his statements on Bush Administration have been histrionic. He's far on the left when it comes to that, and has slipped into Trutherism. It's sad.

  9. @Daniel,
    Do you mean to say that Napolitano doesn't know what he's talking about and that the Patriot Act isn't a grave infringement on American rights and freedom?

  10. How many Americans have had their freedom infringed on by the Patriot Act?

  11. Mr. Greenfield, come on. I expect you are fully aware of how the wholly unconstitutional Patriot Act infringes on American liberties, given the quality of your articles, so I do not understand why you should ask.

    If you really do not know: with my earlier reply I posted a link. For a purpose. If you have information contrary to what Napolitano testifies to here at the Reason in DC conference, I would be very interested to learn of that.


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