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Rhetoric Has Real Consequences: Reflections on Oslo

2011 July 28

Like so many people around the world, I was shocked and deeply upset by the terrorist attacks in Oslo last week.  For me, my feelings were reminiscent of what I felt that crisp September morning my senior year in high school, when our futures changed and thousands of people died.  Even though the attacks of Anders Behring Breivik occured thousands of miles away in a country I have no personal connection with, I was deeply disturbed.  As we all learned more about Breivik and his deranged motivations for the murdering and wounding of more than 100 people, the influence of far-right bloggers and political groups on his thinking and bizarre beliefs has become startingly clear.  And it is all too familiar.

Free speech is an integral component of diverse, free, vibrant, and open societies.  But free speech also has its limits.  Speech is powerful: it can enliven and awaken the broad spectrum of human emotion; and it can encite action, both positive and profoundly destructive.  Some of the most despotic and destructive political regimes the world has seen gained their power not through military might, but through powerful rhetoric—words used to manipulate emotion and action.  The same could be said of many of our most valued advocates for social justice; anyone who has read or heard the speeches of Rev. Martin Luther King cannot deny the power of his words to move and motivate.  As a law student, as an advocate of civil rights and freedoms, I am loathe to put limits on free speech.  But there is a point in which speech can incite dangerous action.

Even in our country, where we worship at the temple of the First Amendment, there is a point at which the safety of society trumps an individual’s right to free speech.   Colloquially, this is often summarized by the metaphor of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, which references the majority Supreme Court decision penned by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the case of Schenck v. United States (1919).  The Schenck case remains controversial, as plaintiff Charles Schenck was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for distributing flyers and speaking against the military draft.  Justice Holmes, in his majority opinion, stated:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. It does not even protect a man from an injunction against uttering words that may have all the effect of force…The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.

This standard set by the Court in the Schenck case was overturned in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, and a new standard for proscribing free speech was instituted, and still stands today.  The new standard, called the Brandenburg Test, prevents government from curtailing First Amendment rights unless  the speech is (1) “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and (2) is “likely to incite or produce such action.”  This standard is more strict, meaning that it is tougher for the government to curtail First Amendment rights.  The problem is, one often doesn’t know what speech will result in “producing imminent lawless action” or is likely to produce such action; often we do not know until after crimes have been committed.  There are people out there who will construe and interpret even the most innocent of statements in incredibly destructive ways.  Anders Breivik is someone who took an ideology rife with extremist rhetoric and used it to justify his horrific actions.

The nativisit, nationalist, and xenophobic attitudes espoused by Breivik are not unique, and beliefs such as his seem to be gaining steam in Europe and America.  Nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Islamic political groups are gaining political ground across Europe, and the internet has provided a fertile ground for extremists to espouse their beliefs.  While official representatives of these far-right political parties have largely renounced Breivik’s actions, no one admits that their rhetoric and positions may have contributed to the beliefs and justifications for Breivik’s crimes.

In the U.S., our answer to Europe’s far-right groups is the Tea-Party, whose official and self-proclaimed proponents have put forth an ideology of fear, racism, and nativism, complete with ludicrous and bizarre conspiracy theories.  People like Glenn Beck and blogger Pamela Geller stoke fears of the dangerous “other” (often Muslims, but Democrats and “socialists” are also often cited) that is imperiling “American values,” Christianity, and civilization as we know it.  This kind of irresponsible rhetoric—often not based in logic or fact and intended to stir outrage and anger—espoused by people like Beck, Geller, Rush Limbaugh, and many others makes some people believe crimes against homosexuals, Muslims, abortion providers, and any other targeted group are just and justifiable.  It is irresponsible and can be incredibly dangerous.

Recently, Beck compared the teenaged victims of the shooting at the youth political camp in Oslo to members of the Nazi Youth on his radio show: “There was a shooting at a political camp, which sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler youth.  I mean, who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics?  Disturbing.”  Its abhorrent to portray the victims of the camp shooting as analogous to the Hitler Youth, and it is also ridiculous.  Political parties in the U.S. and Europe hold youth conferences, activities, and retreats; the Labor Party camp is not unusual.  Beck’s statement is especially absurd given that the Tea Party group 9/12 Project (which Beck founded) is running its own political/ideological summer camps (“Patriot Camps“) for youth in several states.

Then there are the statments made by anti-Islamist blogger Pamela Geller, who immediately jumped on the “Jihadi” bandwagon as news broke last week about the attacks in Oslo, because, of course, only militant Islamist Jihadis could be capable of perpetrating such crimes.  But the man behind the bombing and massacre in Oslo is not a Jijhadi, or a Muslim; he is a Caucasian self-described defender of Christendom against the Muslim invaision and left-wing multiculturalism.  Breivik is a Christian terrorist, one who admired Geller, and praised her in his manifesto.  When this was pointed out to Geller again took to her blog, stating:

Attempts to link us to these murders on the basis of alleged postings by the murderer mentioning us are absurd and offensive.  Our work is and always has been wholly focused upon defending humane values and freedoms.  There is no way that any sane person could possibly conclude that committing mass murder of children would advance the principles for which we stand.  And if he was not sane, then any imputation of responsibility to us falters on that basis.  Islamic jihadists and supremacists routinely invoke Islamic texts and teachings to justify violence, and thus those teachings are and should be rightly held up to scrutiny; by contrast, our record of support for human rights and the dignity of all human beings is consistent and unbroken.  This murderer should be punished to the full extent of the law; any attempts to tar freedom fighters with his actions is deplorable.

The problem with Geller’s statement is that Breivik thought of himself as a freedom fighter too.  So does Glenn Beck.  So did the Unabomber.  So does Al Quaeda.  So do countless other people, who may or may not actually be “freedom fighters.” One person’s freedom fighter is often another’s terrorist. Breivik did not use Islamic texts and teachings to justify his crimes; he used an ideology strikingly similar to those held by upstanding Christians, like Beck and Geller.  But according to Geller, and many others, Breivik is not a Christian, and his actions had nothing to do with Christianity:  “Watching CNN and BBC coverage about Norway, I found very disturbing to hear the number of times they use the word ‘Christian.’  They would never dare refer to religion when it is jihad, and this attack had nothing to do with Christianity. It is outrageous.”

Bill O’Reilly has also jumped on this, stating that because Breivik was not attached to any church, and “criticized the Prostestant belief system,” he is not a Christian.  Breivik choose to be baptized at age 15, he self-identifies as Christian, and claimed his crimes were committed in defense of Christianity.  Just because he’s deluded, perhaps insane, and dangerously violent doesn’t mean he’s not a Christian.  History is full of religious figures and bodies who have committed atrocities in the name of their faith.  Were the men who perpetrated the Inquistion not Christian?  They certainly thought they were doing God’s work, even though many today do not see that heinous part of European history as a shining momement of Christian benevolence.

Every country, every religion, every ethnic group, every political group and any other group will have within it certain deranged individuals who take an ideology too far and use it to jusitify their crimes.  Glenn Beck, Pamela Geller, Mark Steyn, and others like them, whom Breivik cited in his deranged manifesto, are not responsible for Anders Breivik’s actions.  But they are responsible for stoking the fires of racism, xenophobia, and hate, often using arguments that have no basis in logic or fact.  But of course, because Breivik is quite probably mentally disturbed, they are absolved from spewing their vitriolic ideology designed to jusitfy their hate.  They are not responsible because words don’t kill people;  people kill people.  But what happens when the motivations of those who murder are deeply rooted, encouraged, and nourished by a destructive ideology?  How do we maintain free speech and free societies while protecting public safety?  Everyone has a right to express their opinions, but those with great power have a great responsibilty to think carefully about how their words will be interpreted, and to be aware of how hyperbole can inflame righteousness but also inspire dangerous actions.

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