Politics & Policy

The Left Discovers You Shouldn’t Collectivize Guilt

Anti-police protesters outside City Hall in New York City. (Getty Images)
All of a sudden liberals are loath to blame crimes on “climate.”

Just minutes after it was made clear that the two dead New York City police officers had been assassinated in a revenge attack, the blame game began in earnest, and conservatives, who are typically reticent in this area, began a notable volte face. Twitter, that hotbed of instant reaction, immediately lit up with talk of culpability. “Anti-police rhetoric is what encouraged all of this,” one user wrote. “If you don’t think months of anti-police incitement played a role,” another suggested, “you’re lying.” Meanwhile, Geraldo Rivera posed a popular question, inquiring as to whether “the harsh anti-police rhetoric from protestors & officials alike create climate where a scumbag terrorist felt justified to attack cops?” From the Right, the favorite answer to this query was, “Yes.”

At its worst this reaction was self-serving and cathartic, representing an unlovely example of good old-fashioned political revenge. At its best, however, it has hinted at what is a coherent and congruous case. Of all the supposed instances in which a political group has been accused of “inciting” murder, the advocates of this view have argued, this one is the strongest. In addition to there having been an explicit instruction — a fringe element within the protest group having shouted the words, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do what them? Now!” — there was also a direct connection between the perpetrator and his alleged champions. Moreover, the killer not only traveled from a neighboring state in order to target cops in New York City — no casual act — but he had previously attended a Manhattan-based protest, the target of which was the NYPD. Given these facts, those of this persuasion charge, it is imperative to lay at least some responsibility at the agitators’ feet.

As I recorded yesterday afternoon, I do not agree with this assessment. But I should note for the sake of fairness that it is at least consistent. What its exponents are contending, I suppose, is that there is a sliding scale at play here, and that while most ostensibly partisan charges of “incitement” do not come up to scratch, this particular one — because it is so explicit in nature — is materially different. If so, this all comes down to where exactly we draw the line. Because I am extremely jealous of protections for even vicious and unhelpful speech, and because I believe that individual responsibility is the most necessary of prerequisites to the maintenance of a free republic, I am reluctant to impose moral sanctions on those who indulge in even the most grotesque of idle chatter. Evidently, many of my interlocutors disagree, and are willing to collectivize guilt a touch sooner than am I. Fair enough. Your mileage may vary.

This being so, though, one has to wonder what can explain those among us who are making the opposite case — that is, those who are arguing that this incident, unlike almost every other, is not uniquely heinous but uniquely irrelevant. In the last few days, we have seen a panoply of commentators eschewing their usual rush to judgment and instead calling for calm, thereby effectively taking the position that previous, tangential cases were a legitimate cause for alarm, but that this more worrying incident is not. This, it strikes me, is untenable.

Consider, if you will, the recent behavior of Salon’s Joan Walsh, who yesterday suggested in earnest that the conservative-led condemnation of the “climate” that supposedly provoked the shootings in New York City represented the unconscionable “politicization” of murder. “To blame the peaceful movement against police brutality that’s emerged nationwide,” Walsh wrote, is “the worst in demagoguery.” “Right wingers,” she added, “are using a terrible tragedy to make sure that no one can find middle ground.” Prima facie, I concur with Walsh, of course. But what, we might ask, has finally led her to this conclusion? After the shooting of Gabby Giffords in 2011, Walsh fretted dramatically about “the rhetoric of violence”; asked aloud, “Will any prominent conservatives denounce ‘reload’ and ‘crosshairs’ imagery?”; inquired dishonestly, “Is it really controversial to suggest that the overheated anti-government rhetoric of the last two years, with its often violent imagery, ought to be toned down?”; described Sarah Palin’s pretty standard political-campaign map as “unconscionable”; hoped that Republicans would find it in their hearts to “listen to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who denounced ‘the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about the government’ at a Saturday night press conference”; played a remarkably dishonest game of “But Anyway . . . ,” repeatedly noting that there was “no evidence” that Jared Loughner had reacted to any right-wing rhetoric before insinuating in the next breath that he must have; and, when her well was running dry, went so far as to suggest without any attestation at all that the shooter was a registered Republican.

Later, talking characteristically out of both sides of her mouth, Walsh proposed that “even if Tuscon exists in a vacuum,” it would still be the case that the “Tea Party’s violent rhetoric is dangerous.” Naturally, these accusations were part of a trend. Two years earlier, Walsh had cynically blamed conservative talk-radio for a shooting at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The perpetrator turned out to be a neo-Nazi.

Walsh is alone only in the sheer scale of her audacity. In a column bluntly titled, “protesters aren’t to blame for NYPD officers’ execution,” the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson yesterday confirmed his own evolution on the question of what constitutes verbal instigation. “It is absurd to have to say this,” Robinson lamented, “but New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, activist Al Sharpton and President Obama are in no way responsible for the coldblooded assassination of two police officers in Brooklyn on Saturday. Nor do the tens of thousands of Americans who have demonstrated against police brutality in recent weeks bear any measure of blame.” Rather, Robinson proposed, “a disturbed career criminal named Ismaaiyl Brinsley committed this unspeakable atrocity by himself, amid a spree of insane mayhem.” “Reasonable people,” Robinson explained, “understand this, of course.” “But,” he sighed knowingly, “we live in unreasonable times.”

Indeed so. In fact, I couldn’t have put it better myself. And yet, funnily enough, Robinson has not always been so “reasonable.” Indeed, back in 2011, when examining the conduct of another “disturbed man,” he came to precisely the opposite conclusion. “The accused gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, appears to be deranged,” Robinson proclaimed, “but this fact does not automatically absolve the politicians, partisan activists and professional loudmouths who spew apocalyptic anti-government rhetoric full of violent imagery.” And why not? Because, well . . . because, well it’s just different when conservatives do it. “Delusional right-wing crazy talk,” Robinson suggested in 2012, “is a special kind of poison that cannot be safely ignored.” Lest he be misunderstood, he spelled it out for all to see: “I’m saying that the extreme language we hear from the far right is qualitatively different from the extreme language we hear from the far left — and far more damaging to the ties that bind us as a nation.”

That’s convenient, then.

Robinson’s colleague at the Post, Paul Waldman, also seems to have had a conversion of sorts. This summer, after a pair of politically confused vagrants shot two police officers in Las Vegas, Waldman explained that it was “long past time for prominent conservatives and Republicans to do some introspection and ask whether they’re contributing to outbreaks of right-wing violence.” There are, Waldman contended, “some particular features of conservative political rhetoric today that help create an atmosphere in which violence and terrorism can germinate.” Evidently, this sentiment is popular at his blog. In 2011, his partner-in-crime, Greg Sargent, suggested that Sarah Palin ought to “be more mindful of the potential consequences of incendiary rhetoric” and approvingly quoted Gabriel Giffords’s condemnation of the “crosshairs map” that was apparently so central to Loughner’s crime.

Today, Waldman has changed his tune, dismissing reactions such as these out of hand:

We regularly argue over not just the substance of issues but the way those issues are being discussed; both liberals and conservatives are convinced that their side presents its arguments in reasonable and logical ways, while the other side is prone to inflammatory, dishonest and demagogic rhetoric. When something like this shooting happens, the accusation that it occurred because of the words someone else spoke is almost inevitable. But it’s also almost always wrong.

Now you tell us.

Also playing this game are Media Matters (2011: rhetoric is lethal; 2014: rhetoric is harmless); the NAACP (2011: civility is crucial; 2014: civility is irrelevant); and Al Sharpton (2011: our political discourse has real consequences; 2014: such thoughts are misguided). Elsewhere, the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery — a man who was quick to jump on Sarah Palin’s map back in 2011 — yesterday mocked the notion that words and behavior might lead to murder, while Politico’s Glenn Thrush pooh-poohed suggestions that he had once made himself. In 2011, his Twitter feed shows, Thrush treated Gabby Giffords’s shooting as “a watershed moment that will immediately redefine current debate and view of pols embracing of extreme rhetoric.” Yesterday, he shamed Governor Pataki for advancing the very same theory.

What a difference party identification makes.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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