Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Sword Must Not Silence the Pen

I've been reading the news over the past week of increasing reports of violence acts taking place at the different health-care town halls going on across the country. For some recent highlights we have the man who was spotted in New Hampshire on Tuesday outside a town hall Obama attended yesterday carrying a gun and a sign that said, "The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants", an individual arrested today at a town hall in Maryland with a sign saying, "Death to Obama", statements from one of the top Tea Party organizers urging their followers to bring guns and "hurt" any union activists present, and quite beautifully Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) statement on Sunday that the Democratic unrest with what is going on now is a sign that the GOP is "winning" on health care.

Quite frankly what is going on disturbs me on a very deep level for a few reasons.

There have been incidents of organized violence and mass protest in American history before. This is nothing new. Everything ranging from the tactics used by the great urban machines of America to the KKK in the Deep South during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s up to the more extreme actions by pro-life activists in the 90s including bombing clinics are a dirty if real part of American history. In each of those instances you had organized mob violence taking place for a political end but, with the exception of incidents of political intimidation by urban machines in the 1800s, what all those incidents have in common is that none of them were implicitly endorsed or ignored by a major political party when they took place.

In the current situation not only do you have Sen. McConnell's statement on Sunday but you have repeated statements since then regarding non-existent "death panels" by other major members of the Republican Party including Sens. Grassley and Coburn, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin that are being used as rhetorical fuel by the mobs. There is also the level of organization, proven by leaked memos, on the behalf of the demonstrators at the town halls and the close links between the groups organizing them, the GOP, and the health care industry that did not exist previously with the exception of the close ties between the Democrats and the KKK during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.

Now I am a firm believer in the old statement that free speech means that while I may disagree with what you say with every bone in my body I will defend to the death your right to say it. Without free speech a free society is impossible. But like all rights free speech is both the freedom to speak freely and the duty to exercise that right responsibly. Free speech, when used to incite violence, anger, and fear through deliberate misinformation or when used to silence another person's right to speak freely is when you cross the line from responsible use of free speech to the use of speech as a tool of intimidation.

There is nothing wrong, in fact I welcome it, in a person challenging the current policies in debate in Congress on health care. But shouting loudly and refusing other people in the room to even get a word in is not an example of free expression no matter who does it. That is using speech to silence all opposition, to intimidate people into submission, and to prevent any real discussion from taking place. Those who would seek to use speech as a weapon as opposed to a means of expressing ideas and debating policy are not using their right in a responsible fashion but rather to keep others from exercising their right to do the same.

Now I would imagine anyone reading this is asking the question, "What about the right to protest the policies of a government? Isn't that a vital part of our democracy?" It is.

What is happening now is not protest. Protest does not involve making threats of violence against the opposition like one Congressman who canceled all his town halls for the month because of death threats delivered to his office. Protest is not bringing weapons with you to a peaceful forum and openly stating you are ready to start trouble. Protest is not coming to an open debate where all are welcome and then refusing to allow anyone you disagree with to speak. When a group deliberately engages in tactics of intimidation, harassment, and suppression of dissenting voices with the implicit promise of violence present that has crossed the line from civil discussion of policy into the politics of thuggery.

Now as I mentioned earlier this kind of thing has happened before. Groups attempting to use force in lieu of reasoned discussion are not new in American politics. The difference here is the implied endorsement by mainstream political figures and authorities by statements of leading Republicans, a refusal to condemn these actions, and the exposure of some of the demonstrators being ranking operatives of the Republican Party. That the GOP has failed to do so gives these demonstrators a sense of legitimacy and encourages the use of violence in the political process.

One might simply dismiss these mob actions as isolated events or overblown political theater with heated rhetoric. Some might simply dismiss this as part of Washington's kabuki theater of politics. Those who would do so must remember the last time a major political faction in the United States engaged in such violent rhetoric, refusal to cooperate or discuss the issues, and endorsed violent acts instead of peaceful protest and discussion the end result was the Civil War. This political brinksmanship is incredibly dangerous and, if not reigned in, could have disastrous impact on our nation.

So what should be done? I call on all who read this, regardless of your actual opinion on the matter of health care, to attend a local town hall and refuse to allow these people to silence debate. It does not matter if you are solidly opposed to the proposed health care out of fears of government expansion or working to get it passed into law, the use of violence in political discourse is an issue that all Americans should agree on in condemnation of it.

We all need to exercise our right to free speech and do our duty as citizens to ensure the health of our democracy. We, as Americans, must do everything we can to peacefully stop such radical tactics and radical activists from hijacking our democratic process. The moment that the mob takes over is the moment when the rights of all citizens of this nation are in grave danger. To allow the mob to control this or any debate by force, fear, and intimidation is to ensure a serious blow to the stability of our free society.

1 comment:

  1. A voice of reason in these troubled times. If only more people believed as you do.