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On Arizona Shooting, Jon Stewart Skirts the Edge of Reason

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Posted on January 12 2011 3:00 pm
Walter Hudson is a political commentator and co-founder of Minnesota's North Star Tea Party Patriots, a statewide educational organization. He runs a blog entitled Fightin Words. He also contributes to True North, a hub of Minnesotan conservative commentary. Follow his work via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

One question: Who threw the first punch?

Most of us know a disingenuous apology when we hear one. The sincerity of a mea culpa is generally revealed by whether it is focused upon the offended party or the offensive behavior. Saying “I’m sorry you took it that way” does not fully own up to an offense. Likewise, the inclusion of excuses within an apology indicates an offender hasn’t fully accepted responsibility for their behavior.

Even so, a less than sincere apology is perhaps better than none at all. Likewise, in the aftermath of the horrendous shooting spree in Arizona and the stunning witch hunt that has followed in the media, an attempt by some left-wing television commentators to moderate their tone is better than the blatant double-standard employed by many of their colleagues. In particular, Jon Stewart has broken from the leftist herd to concede that political rhetoric cannot be blamed for Jared Loughner’s shooting rampage. Still, Stewart has not completely let go of the “toxic vitriol” meme. He still seems to assert that political rhetoric may have influenced Loughner, even if it did not directly cause him to kill.

Like an insincere apology, this concession leaves us rather cold. Still missing from Stewart’s assessment is the moral distinction between speech and action, and the plain sense which informs the “reasonable person” standard in common law. Stewart’s instincts push him in the right direction. However, he never quite reaches the relevant philosophical destination.

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Did the toxic political environment cause this? A graphic image here? An ill-timed comment? Violent rhetoric? Those types of things? I have no f—ing idea.

You know, we live in a complex ecosystem of influences and motivations, and I wouldn’t blame our political rhetoric [for the Arizona shooting] anymore than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine. By the way, that is coming from somebody who truly hates our political environment. It is toxic. It is unproductive. But to say that [political rhetoric] has caused this, or that the people [engaged in rhetoric] are responsible for this, I just don’t think you can do.

Boy, would that be nice. Boy, would it be nice to be able to draw a straight line of causation from this horror to something tangible. Because then we could convince ourselves that, if we just stop “this,” the horrors will end – to have the feeling, however fleeting, that this type of event can be prevented forever. But, it’s hard not to feel like it can’t. You cannot outsmart crazy. You don’t know what a troubled mind will get caught on.

Note that Stewart is not arguing against holding our speech accountable for the actions of others. Instead, Stewart is saying we cannot know with certainty whether speech has influenced this particular event. Admirable as such humility may be, Stewart’s position still allows for restricting speech. If we could somehow “outsmart crazy” and discern whether some political rhetoric encountered by Loughner sent him over the edge, Stewart’s position would allow us to regard the originator of that speech as an accomplice to Loughner’s actions.

The crucial point which Stewart and others are missing is that speech is rarely the moral and legal equivalent of action. When two young boys get into a scuffle, what is the first question asked by an attending adult after the fact? Who threw the first punch? The question is not who made the first snide remark, or who came up with the most offensive insult. Implicit in the consideration of who threw the first punch is the idea that no speech, no matter how provocative, justifies a violent response.

The same principle applies to the tragedy in Arizona. What informed Loughner’s actions matters only toward determining the degree of his crime, not who was responsible. He fired those shots. He took violent action. What speech may or may not have affected his psyche does not defer or dilute his responsibility.

Even so, don’t we have an obligation to moderate our rhetoric to ensure psyches like Loughner’s are not triggered toward violence? To answer that, let us consider the classic example of speech-as-action. Knowingly yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is the moral and legal equivalent of an action. Why? Because it is reasonable to expect that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater will result in a panic which will endanger lives. Reasonable audience members, having been warned of the imminent threat of fiery death, would seek to evacuate as quickly as possible. Compare that to Sarah Palin using the word “reload” in a tweet. Would a reasonable person interpret Palin’s tweet as a call to literal arms? Of course not. Even if Loughner did, which seems highly unlikely given what we have learned of his politics (such as they are), his reaction would be the exception to the rule. It would be indicative only of his lack of reason, not any wrongdoing by Palin.

Stewart comes close to acknowledging these important concepts. He instinctively knows he cannot blame political rhetoric for Loughner’s actions. Unfortunately, he does not seem to know why. It is not simply that we cannot determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Loughner was influenced by political speech. We cannot blame political rhetoric for Loughner’s actions because there is a moral and legal distinction between speech and action. Furthermore, we ought not craft public policy without regard to the “reasonable person” standard. That’s what Stewart gets right. We can’t outsmart crazy. Instead, we ought to defer to the wisdom of previous generations and sequester crazy in secure facilities from which it can do no harm.

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