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Free speech, not irresponsible speech

Yesterday in Tucson, Ariz., Jared Lee Loughner shot 20 people, killing 6. His apparent target was US Representative Gabriel Giffords (D-AZ), who was critically wounded and remains in intensive care.

Yet as horrifying as the shooting was, we cannot call it surprising. The rhetoric of hate and violence in our country has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. We’ve been bombarded with talk of targeting or taking out enemies, shooting from the hip, being armed and dangerous, taking up arms, locking and loading, reloading instead of retreating, having bullseye lists, ad nauseam.

Responsible public figures should realize that such talk does not fall on deaf ears. Day after day, it builds an atmosphere of permissiveness and hammers away at inhibitions. It condones and incites anger, bigotry, and physical violence, if only metaphorically. And unfortunately there are and always will be people in our society who take such language literally. Saying “I didn’t mean it that way” is no excuse after a tragedy occurs.

There may or may not be a direct cause and effect in the Tucson shooting, but Americans should be considering carefully what this and similar incidents mean for our right of free speech and for our system of free and open government. Will thoughtful, serious public-minded citizens step up to serve as legislators if it means risking their lives? And what becomes of our country if they won’t? What kind of America do we want to live in?

Words matter. Words have power. And words have consequences.

In Memoriam

John Roll, 63

Gabe Zimmerman, 30

Dorwin Stoddard, 76

Christina Green, 9

Dorothy Murray, 76

Phyllis Schneck, 79

7 Comments »

  1. The US Constitution is designed to guarantee the rights of individual US citizens. As history has shown us repeatedly, the real threat to our freedom arises when individual citizens abdicate their responsibility to take action to check the unacceptable behavior of their family, friends, and neighbors – choosing instead to leave it in the hands of a government that has no where near the sensitivity to the local situation to properly deal with the problems.

    Every time some nutjob commits an atrocity, the aftermath always includes the same three things: The yelling and screaming that “somebody ought to DO SOMETHING!” The reports of all the missed opportunities the people around said nutjob had to check the fool before he got out of hand. And the pushing forward of new laws that erode our rights even more – including our right to check the unacceptable behavior of their family, friends, and neighbors!

    I know that these words have been misused so many times in the past, but in the end it really does come down to individual responsibility.

    • I would contend that if each of us behaves responsibly, no one would have to be responsible for anyone else. Children and the mentally ill being obvious exceptions. As for checking the unacceptable behavior of friends and neighbors, at some point (I’m not sure where) that has to become the responsibility of law enforcement. Anything else would be vigilantism, would it?

      • I admit that there are some fine lines to be considered. Learning to recognize where they are is part of being a responsible adult. One of those lines exists between being “well secured” and “living in a police state.” Recognizing that must be included in any understanding of where the other lines lie. Life is filled with hard decisions, but the choice to leave them for others to decide will all to often result in our wishing we had decided otherwise.

  2. I agree with IzaakMak.

    My two cents worth:

    Vigilantism is punishing someone for something they’ve done in the past whereas legitimately securing your own safety is limited to acting at the time of an immediate threat to yourself or innocent others.

    I really don’t think the line dividing the two actions can rightfully be called “fine.”

    Vigilantism is the exclusive responsibility of the law, but then we call it justice instead of vengeance.

    Personal security is an individual responsibility.

      • You are right to call me out on that, but after thinking about using the proper word (vengeance), I decided that boldly drawing the line between proper, legal vengeance and unlawful vengeance would be more easily understood if I used the same word you did in your original posting. The best of intentions are paved with ice water… or something like that. Mea Culpa.

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” ― Isaac Asimov

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