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The law says you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater.
But can you nudge the guy next to you and say “psst... that guy up front looks like he wants to start a fire,”?
This weekend, the country was once again shocked by violence when six people including a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl were shot by a lone madman in Arizona.
The question that leaps to most people’s mind is why.
Although the public had never heard his name before the shooting, the cliche is already in full bloom — the angry loner, fearful the government is out of control and assaulting his rights as an American.
Popular perception will say his madness must have been fueled by right-wing pundits and politicians who on daily, almost hourly, schedule warn the “real Americans” that socialism is on the march.
With talk of “second-amendment remedies” and “tyranny” being used on a somewhat regular basis, it’s not really surprising that someone would finally take up arms in an attempt to fight back against someone they perceive as being a real and tangible threat to the American way of life.
And with the “why” neatly answered, the question then becomes “what can we do.”
The answers are “little” and “nothing.”
Since the incident, Sarah Palin’s graphic “targeting” Democrats in the fall general election has received a lot of attention because rifle crosshairs were used to denote the contested elections.
Despite the Palin people’s insipid, insulting and ludicrous assertion the crosshairs were “surveyors marks,” there can be little doubt in the mind of any reasonable person that this was not some kind of hit list or a secret message to right-wing gunmen to take action.
Since man could speak, we have used military or violent images to denote everything from elections, sporting events, to shopping at an after-Thanksgiving sale.
Beyond any of the other privileges outlined by the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech comes with the most responsibility.
We have an obligation to use this God-given right with restraint, facts and honesty.
Responsible use of freedom of speech can’t be determined by a governmental board, statutes or even public opinion.
Pundits and politicians have every right to say anything they want. It’s a founding idea that must be protected. Freedom of speech isn’t important when someone is saying things people want to hear. It must be defended and protected when it’s speech no one wants to hear.
But it is the duty and obligation of people with a public platform to know the impact and potential ramifications of what they are saying to weak-minded or unstable people who inhabit the left and right fringes of American society.
Can those who inspire and spark violence and intolerance look upon the face of that 9-year-old girl and not feel shame and remorse that they may have played some tiny role in her execution?
You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater but are you any less guilty if you convince a madman there’s an arsonist in the building?