The Threat of Threats

I remarked recently that when the President of the United States issues threats at will – both to his friends of convenience and to his increasingly large cache of enemies – others are almost sure to follow.  The office of President is still enabling, even when the present occupant plainly can’t control himself.

Trump-enabled thuggery was already a feature in the election run-up, as far-right Trump supporters threatened violent revolution should their sheissfuhrer not be elected.

And yesterday, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor, a minor  Republican official in Michigan suggested that the Berkeley protesters be treated like the protesters at Kent State who were killed by National Guardsmen in 1970.  He apologized after being called out, but the damage was done.  His reason – that Berkeley stifled free speech by canceling a speaking engagement after violence erupted – doesn’t even pass the laugh test   His implied remedy – summary execution of unarmed students – is worse than appalling.

If incitement to violence isn’t hate speech, I truly don’t know what qualifies.  At least for now, we rightly condemn targeted hate speech in this country.  But it is, apparently, possible to practically incite violence without being guilty of legal incitement. The Atlantic wrote up a synopsis of the situation, after one of Trump’s threats against Hillary Clinton.

I wouldn’t argue that incitement to violence is more destructive than targeted hate speech, but I might suggest it is as destructive.  What could possibly be more eroding to civil society than the suggestion, particularly by someone in authority, that violence is a sanctioned remedy for disagreement.  Incitement to violence is the ultimate threat – not just uncivilized speech, but the uncivilized idea that we subordinate speech to more primitive means of problem resolution.

For those truly believing that Berkeley violated the Constitutional rights of a speaker and those who would hear him, there is a remedy.  Take UC Berkeley to court.  The Berkeley protesters were needlessly violent and should also face a day in court. But they shouldn’t be shot, as I presume they would not have shot others.

As for the cowardly souls who use Trump’s behavior as an excuse to incite violence, they may not be legally liable for anything.  But somehow, that seems wrong.  You do not have to be a constitutional scholar to think that speech threatening other speech isn’t First-Amendment friendly.  We have refined the practical distinction between hateful speech and legally hateful speech – perhaps this can be extended to include speech that is truly against speech itself, instead recommending violence in its place.

 

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