Politics & Policy

When Speech Inspires Violence, Protect Liberty While Restoring Virtue

A U.S. Capitol Police officer stands watch following the shooting in Alexandria. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
We protect free speech because it’s powerful, but with power comes responsibility.

If the initial reports from Virginia are true (a big “if”), America may have just witnessed a textbook example of lone-wolf progressive terrorism. According to multiple news reports, the man who opened fire on a baseball field full of Republican lawmakers and staffers this morning was James T. Hodgkinson. He was an outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter who, according to his local paper, belonged to a potpourri of anti-Republican and anti-Trump Facebook groups, including ones with names such as “Terminate the Republican Party” and “The Road to Hell is paved with Republicans.” Moreover, before opening fire, he reportedly asked whether the players on the field were Republicans or Democrats.

Those of us who remember the terrible shooting of Gabby Giffords in Tucson are familiar with the political exploitation of tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of that attack, before any of the meaningful facts were known, many on the political Left issued a clarion call for “civility” in the same breath as they began blaming conservative rhetoric. (It was Sarah Palin’s fault for “targeting” Giffords for electoral defeat. It was the Tea Party’s fault for employing inflammatory anti-Obama rhetoric.) It later emerged that Giffords’s shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was a paranoid-schizophrenic conspiracy theorist, and he was initially judged unfit to stand trial. His political views were all over the map.

Loughner was the wrong poster boy for alleged conservative terrorism. But though the Left might have been wrong about him, it was still right about one thing: Political speech can inspire violence.

Fast-forward to today’s attack. Conservatives are correct to perceive that the present-day political environment is full of toxic anti-Republican rhetoric and symbolism. A celebrity posed with Donald Trump’s severed head. A theater company shoehorned a mock execution of Trump into Shakespeare in the Park. The Internet has come alive with debates over when, if ever, it’s acceptable to “punch a fascist.” Even otherwise respectable politicians accuse Republican lawmakers of killing people by repealing Obamacare. If far-right speech can inspire far-right violence (and it does), isn’t the obverse equally true?

Well, yes, but that’s no argument for suppressing extreme political expression. Free speech is among the most powerful forces in all of human history. While it’s not always true that the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s absolutely true that the pen often inspires the hand that wields the sword: It foments revolutions, it motivates murderers, and it radicalizes terrorists.

But it does not remove individual moral agency. People are still responsible for their actions.

Absent virtue, liberty can lead to disorder. In the face of that disorder, however, we shouldn’t restrict liberty; we should rebuild virtue.

The American experiment is built on a concept that’s rarely discussed in modern politics: ordered liberty. Edmund Burke famously and correctly argued that “the only liberty that is valuable is a liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them.” When John Adams insisted that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people” and that “it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” he was getting at the same point.

All too often, the response to a breakdown in this scheme — and make no mistake, an act of political terrorism represents just such a breakdown — is to try curtailing liberty, rather than repairing moral order. The gun-control debate is a perfect example: A criminal violates the law, and invariably the cry rings out for more law and less freedom. The free-speech debate (especially on college campuses) is following suit: In response not just to crime but even to the “injury” of hurt feelings, the cry rings out for more law and less freedom.

I’ve grown to dislike calls for “civility” in public discourse. In practice, they tend to be one-sided and dishonest. There are times when anger is an appropriate and even necessary response to injustice. Was Jesus “civil” when he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple? Was He “civil” when he condemned Pharisees as “white-washed tombs,” beautiful on the outside but “full of dead men’s bones” on the inside?

Instead, I prefer to echo Burke and Adams. Morality and virtue are concepts that point the way toward a far more holistic view of personal responsibility. (Or, to quote Scripture again, “In your anger, do not sin.”) What we’re losing isn’t so much “civility” but the fundamental worldview in which even our ideological enemies are seen as human beings created in God’s image and in which an “ends justifies the means” instrumentalist morality is shunned in favor of respecting universal moral standards that bind both sides.

Despite our fraying social fabric, ordered liberty still exists. In fact (and ironically, given our gun-control debates) there’s one American community that exhibits a demonstrable commitment to it: concealed-carry-permit holders. They carry weapons every day (that’s the liberty) and yet they commit crimes at lower rates than even police officers (that’s the order). In fact, the exercise of their liberties is inextricably linked to their respect for order.

That’s how the system should work. That’s how it was designed to work. Absent virtue, liberty can lead to disorder. In the face of that disorder, however, we shouldn’t restrict liberty; we should rebuild virtue. That doesn’t mean standing down in the great political conflicts of our time, but it does mean standing up for a deep truth: Freedom carries with it responsibility, and that responsibility includes respecting the fundamental humanity and individual dignity of even your greatest foes.

READ MORE:

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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