Luke O’Neil’s opinion article in Wednesday’s Boston Globe opens lamenting a missed opportunity to adulterate political foe Bill Kristol’s meal with urine and blood. He ends with a half-baked “joke,” telling waiters they would be “serving America” by tampering with soon-to-be-former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s food.
“As for the waiters out there, I’m not saying you should tamper with anyone’s food, as that could get you into trouble. You might lose your serving job,” O’Neil says, cleverly building in some plausible deniability. “But you’d be serving America. And you won’t have any regrets years later,” he concludes, leaving less-than-stable readers to interpret and act on this advice as they may.
Some might argue that O’Neil’s words were tongue-in-cheek: “He’s obviously not really suggesting waiters should poison her. It’s a joke!” “After all, he specifically said they shouldn’t tamper with anyone’s food.”
I would argue that O’Neil, a seasoned writer, communicated his intent quite clearly. He expressed regret over his own missed opportunity for fantasized revenge and suggested others finding themselves in a similar position would do well to strike while the iron is hot. And remember, bodily fluids aren’t just gross, they can carry diseases.
O’Neil took to Twitter on Wednesday afternoon to clarify his stance for his 36,000 followers.
“People who carry out policies of ethnic cleansing or cheerlead for disastrous wars leading to tens of thousands suffering or dead should not expect to be able to show their faces in public anymore thank you for understanding this basic premise,” said O’Neil in a tweeted response to conservative pundit Caleb Hull’s criticism.
After a flurry of criticism, late Wednesday the Globe appended an editor’s note to the top of the story that reads, “A version of this column as originally published did not meet Globe standards and has been changed. The Globe regrets the previous tone of the piece.” The lead and other parts of the article have changed significantly, including the concluding paragraphs in which he suggested waiters should adulterate Nielsen’s food. The opening word “pissing” was also changed to “defiling.”
— Eddie Zipperer (@EddieZipperer) April 10, 2019
Here’s the original concluding paragraph that has now been dialed down:
O’Neil’s hypothetical defenders might argue that the First Amendment protects his right to express his objection to the administration’s policies and to Nielsen’s enforcement of those policies. And they would be 100 percent correct. He most assuredly does have a right to express his opinion, and the Globe has the right—some would even say the responsibility—to print those objections.
Yet freedom of speech, of course, is not absolute. The quintessential example of unprotected speech involves yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. That sort of speech is not protected because it endangers others. Other speech may be protected from government censure by the First Amendment, too, but that doesn’t mean everything the First Amendment protects is wise or praiseworthy.
O’Neil’s statement encouraging readers to serve America and avoid regret by tampering with a government official’s food is vile, and deserves public censure. The Globe’s editors should never have published it. Clearly, it endangers Nielsen, who was verbally accosted in a restaurant last summer by protesters who disagreed with the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Who knows what O’Neil might motivate someone to put in a government official’s food.
The concern with O’Neil’s piece goes beyond his arguable incitement to possible threats against a sitting governmental official. The article as a whole, sandwiched by the personal introductory anecdote and the ending word-of-advice, suggests that it is entirely appropriate—even laudable—to express your political opinions through violence.
Ironically, the vehicle through which he expressed that disturbing opinion is speech. The introduction and conclusion to O’Neil’s article not only fails in the humor department, it fails in the ethical journalism department, as well. Are op-eds journalism? No. Do readers often conflate hard news and opinion? Undoubtedly.
Writers of O’Neil’s ilk would argue that their political foes suffer this confusion on a regular basis. In fact, earlier on Wednesday, O’Neil retweeted his article in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer that bemoaned “close relationships that had been strained or ruined by family members who’d become obsessed with Fox News.” The article sports a screenshot of Fox News opinion host Sean Hannity.
Wednesday evening, O’Neil protected his tweets and publicly issued a non-apology apology for his commentary: “I would like to apologize for my commentary regarding the warden of the baby jail,” he tweeted. In other words, he appears to be doubling down on encouraging people to harass and physically endanger people whose politics they disagree with.
The bottom line is that stable, mentally healthy people do not poison others’ food. Nor do they encourage others to do so in widely read op-eds. O’Neil offered this supremely ironic ray of hope to those concerned about his mental health after reading the Globe’s piece: “I already go to therapy, b-tch” he tweeted late on Wednesday.
Whether that will be of any comfort to Neilson and others he endangered remains to be seen.