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Watch What You Say


It’s once again time ponder how our careless political rhetoric encourages otherwise reasonable people to snap and go on terror sprees. Sorry, right-wing terror sprees.

Whenever a deranged gunman decides to slaughter innocent people, partisans always seem to unearth a few nuggets of evidence that purportedly ties the irrational murders to some completely innocuous political speech they dislike. So when a disturbed couple ambush two Las Vegas police officers, kill a bystander, and leave behind swastikas (a sure sign of their opposition to higher top marginal tax rates, no?) and a Gadsden flag before committing suicide, we are left with only one question: Why do you do it, Republicans?

Take, for instance, Paul Waldman in the Washington Post online: “How much does right-wing rhetoric contribute to right-wing terrorism?” he asks. Not, “does it” contribute to terrorism, or “is this” even terrorism but “how much”—which means we’ve already answered an important question, doesn’t it? But let’s consider the evidence anyway:

When GOP Senator Ron Johnson says that the Affordable Care Act is “the greatest assault on freedom in our lifetime,” and hopes that the Supreme Court will intervene to preserve our “last shred of freedom,” is it at all surprising that some people might be tempted to take up arms?

Yes, of course it would be surprising. Fortunately, despite the active imagination of pundits, no one has taken up arms to repeal Obamacare—ever.

Now, some of you would-be enablers of terrorism might argue that an individual mandate that allows government to coerce all citizen to purchase a product on the open market is, as far as policy goes, unprecedented. It is then reasonable to believe that the law constitute one of the most serious “assaults” on individual freedom in recent memory. Nothing in that statement, though, intimates that Americans should ambush their local police officers. Nothing in that statement implies that that you “harbor anti-government ideology.” We’re just debating the size of government. Harboring a desire to cut the budget to 2008 levels does not, despite what you may have heard, make you an anarchist.

Are we losing our “last shred of freedom”? That’s certainly a bit hyperbolic. Kind of like accusing your political enemies of “betting against America.” Or incessantly alleging your political opponents are conspiring to keep the poor poor. Or contending that the GOP wants to “deny” sick children health care. Or arguing that Republicans are driven by bigotry, and teeming with misogynists and racists. Or, you know, about another dozen or so rhetorical exaggerations that the Left bludgeons its adversaries with every day. Alas, that’s what happens when everything we do in life has a political component.

The use of “terrorism”* in this instance is meant to suggest that there is restive violence rooted in traditionalist constitutional-centric rhetoric. (And isn’t it remarkable how many of same people who claim that 9/11 was merely a criminal act will throw around the word). Which is preposterous. Terrorism is an act of violence intended to generate fear among the populace by deliberately targeting civilians for a religious or ideological goal. The madmen and mentally ill shooters we’ve seen lately—and acts of terrorism have been declining—are neither organized not part of broader ideology that resembles anything in our contemporary political or religious discussion. None. Obviously, Islamic terrorists come in all races and ethnicities; the only thing they all share is an ideological and religious viewpoint. But, then again, why not squeeze every last drop of partisan ammo from a tragedy?

It is also plausible that many on Left believe their own histrionics, not to mention the simplistic caricatures of conservative and libertarians they’ve created. It is conceivable that some leftist pundits make little distinction between white supremacists and Tea Party conservatives. It is likely that those who jumped to the conclusions about Jared Loughner had convinced themselves that half the country is not only populated by unintellectual God-fearing clods but probably plotting the overthrow of the government. You don’t have to go farther than a Paul Krugman column to see how often those who’ve stopped debating can demonize those who challenge their worldview.

Accusing the other party of snatching “freedom,” as Ron Johnson and others have, was a formulation regularly used by the Left regularly during the Bush years. And it has probably been used by every minority party since the Founding. If that level of rhetoric, as Waldman and others claim, can drive people to arms, then so be it. First, because it’s not a lie to say we are losing freedom. Second, because even if the Vegas shooters were reading Milton Friedman and pondering Edmund Burke, it still wouldn’t change the fact that mainstream and nonviolent ideology is appropriated by all species of nuts for all sort of screwy reasons. Should we start blaming environmental terrorism on apocalyptic talk that is regularly used by liberals these days? That game leads to de facto limitations on political speech.

This is all part of a broader movement to transform rhetorical opposition to goals of the progressive agenda—from gay marriage or immigration reform or welfare expansion—into condemnable hate speech. Because we must, as Ari Fleischer told us back when free speech was sacred, watch what we say. When you watch what you say, you can’t say much of anything. Not if you’re a conservative. Which is the point.

*From 2001-2011 by far the most acts of terrorism were perpetrated by environmentalist groups.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.