Tucson, Arizona last week has created hysteria and knee jerk reactionary response from people from whom I would have least expected it. Perhaps my disappointment is my own fault as I tend to credit freethinkers with using the same reasoned approach to all issues and events, more credit than we apparently deserve.
Over the course of the past few days I received numerous invitations to join causes and pages on Facebook entitled “Prosecute Palin for Incitement to Murder” and “Remove Palin from Facebook.” Curious, I visited those pages and read some outlandishly speculative comments that were proffered as fact; comments so filled with rhetorical hyperbole, so incendiary and worst of all so unsubstantiated that had the people positing them been religionists I’d simply have shaken my head and said: “Typical.”
But these were largely freethinkers, atheists—people who dismiss the supernatural because they demand objective evidence; honor fact not conjecture; and hold rational thought in high regard, or so I thought.
“The shooter is a Teabagger!”; “This was all part of a well conceived Right Wing plan!” ; “Palin knew this was going to happen!”; “She broke the law and is guilty of conspiracy to murder!”; “We should change the laws for high profile people to hold them accountable for words that kill!”; “She went beyond free speech, like yelling Fire in a crowded theater!” When questioned as to the foundational evidence for these statements no substantiations were offered. The pyre was already stacked, the match struck, all they needed was the witch to be delivered to them.
I suggested examination of Brandenburg vs Ohio and Watts vs The United States to better understand the criteria for incitement to murder. Palin’s gun related rhetoric which appeals to her base and is part of her persona, and the crosshair target imagery do not even vaguely approach that criteria. The critical element being that direct intent to cause harm has to be proven and that mere hyperbole, humor, or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected under the Constitution. I implored them not to confuse legal accountability, with the unethical/insensitive political discourse we all rightly and roundly condemn.
This wasn’t received well.
In the midst of all this I received this email from an atheist organization in the Southwestern US:
“The WBC [ Westboro Baptist Church] has added another irony as a right-wing extremist took the lifes [sic] of 6 people wounding 14 more (including Gabby Gifford) will be given hero status by this sick group. If you're in the area please do go to these funerals and help the blockade that will keep the evil of the right-wing out.”
“Of course they're saying he's not one of them. That's how they twist things. Why does associating him with the right threaten my credibility? The right associating him with the left only strengthens theirs”. ...” I think that [picketing Fred Phelps’ demonstration] is a legitimate project for atheists who claim they are also humanists. If my credibility is hurt in the process of getting some action, so be it.”
Let me paraphrase her comment: