It's a Massacre, Stupid
By Tibor Machan - January 12, 2011

What happened in Tucson, AZ, was a massacre and not a tragedy. Perhaps some view this a pedantic detail but it isn't – words do have meaning and a tragedy, as anyone familiar with ancient Greek literature or a bit of Shakespeare will testify, takes place when bad outcomes come from what good people are forced to decide. They are a peculiar moral phenomenon. A massacre isn't morally peculiar but plainly, straightforwardly evil. To execute a bunch of people who haven't been convicted within a system of due process and when the executioner isn't properly authorized to act as the agent of punishment for crimes is no tragedy. It is a vicious crime.

Having said that, please let me reflect a bit on all those who are scapegoating now by assigning blame for the massacre not to the actual perpetrator but to something, anything, they don't like in the world. Accordingly, you will find the likes of Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University and the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and any number of opportunists in Congress point the figure at the heated rhetoric that emerges from those in public forums who are often passionate and polemical about their political convictions. No doubt, some of these folks can go too far with labeling their opponents, unreasonably ascribing motives to them, indicting them for the likely adverse consequences of the policies they promote. That's what happens when a lot is at stake – even the most civilized among us will tend to resort to hyperbole.

But words are not guns. Even the law, always only a questionable clue to what is and what is not moral or ethical, acknowledges that there are only a few fighting words. These are those rare cases of speech that do not get the protection of the principle embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they are deemed to be too offensive and provocative for civilized discourse. But fighting words are few. And heated political rhetoric does not qualify.

These scapegoat mongers – who, by the way, quite often excuse wrong doing on the grounds that people just cannot help how they act, that their socio-economic circumstances force them to do the vicious things they do – aren't really concerned about properly fixing blame or responsibility for events like those that transpired in Tucson but are more likely hoping to score political points. So Sarah Palin likes to shoot big game and you find her politics objectionable, maybe what you can do is associate her with any kind of shooting, never mind the target. Or if those talk show hosts on radio and TV – for instance, Keith, Beck, and Rush – indulge in some fancy verbiage so as to drive home a point, lets treat what they say as if it amounted to fighting words, as if they could cause people to act criminally. By suggesting this one may succeed in besmirching one's favorite political adversaries – or one could at least for a moment win over to one's side the people who are too desperate to make sense of events that are overwhelming and for which no ready explanation is available to them.

This is dirty pool. Yet it should not be banned, any more than the rhetoric being indicted should be (as, sadly, some people are proposing). Curbing the heated rhetoric, as such censorship is euphoniously referred to, isn't going to reduce the number of villains among us – they don't need to be enticed; they have their warped imagination guiding them to do what is unacceptable in civilized society.

Even if one could show that a perpetrator of a massacre such as occurred in Tucson did hold a particular ideology or religion by which one might govern one's behavior, that ideology or religion can never be held fully responsible for the ensuing conduct. That is one thing that's wrong with holding radical Islam responsible for terrorism or Roman Catholicism for the Inquisition! All ideas must be filtered through the minds of the human agents who may make use of them. And these human agents are supposed to be reasonable enough to restrain themselves however passionately they may feel.

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