Freedom, Speech, and Consequences: O'Reilly and Accountability

Let's start with a thought experiment: Let's say you denounced someone in your neighborhood as a a corrupt and terrible person - a killer, even. Let's give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you believe your words to be true. Then let's say that somebody who might have heard your words shot that person down in cold blood.

Wouldn't it give you pause? Wouldn't you want to know if that person heard your harsh words before firing those shots? Wouldn't you spend a sleepless night wondering if you might - just might - bear some portion of the blame for the death of another human being?

Assuming the answer is "yes," you have now learned the difference between you and Bill O'Reilly. Or Sean Hannity. Or Bernard Goldberg. Or any of a number of other commentators who use violent and hateful speech to characterize those with whom they disagree. I've used thought experiments like this one before, and the result is always the same: I and those around me would express regret, then attempt to turn down the rhetorical heat. These guys just keep cranking it up.

I criticized Dick Cheney quite a bit back in the day. But if someone had shot him (instead of vice versa) and my writings were on the shooter's shelf, I would express a great deal of remorse. Then I'd search my writings (and my soul) to see whether I might have crossed a moral line.

It's possible that Dr. Tiller's murderer never heard anything Bill O'Reilly said about the Kansas obstetrician/gynecologist. It's possible that he was completely unaffected by O'Reilly's description of Dr. Tiller as a "baby killer," as someone guilty of "Nazi stuff" who ""destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000." It's possible that he has never even heard of Bill O'Reilly.

It's not likely. But it's possible.

James Lee Adkisson had heard of O'Reilly, however. He's the man who shot down a roomful of peaceful Unitarians in Knoxville. He had an O'Reilly book on his bookshelf. This is the same Bill O'Reilly who encouraged Al Qaeda to attack San Francisco because of its liberal views, the same Bill O'Reilly who routinely characterizes those with whom he disagrees as "Nazis" and "traitors."

What do movie heroes do to Nazis and traitors? They kill them. So what do you do if you're mentally unbalanced and want to be a hero and all you read is Hannity and O'Reilly and Goldberg?

Adkisson was specific about his goals after his capture. "Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg's book. I'd like to kill everyone in the mainstream media." Those sentences openly cite one of Goldberg's misleading and overheated books, The 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken's #37)." But they could also have been inspired by two others: "Bias" and "Arrogance," which refer to the mainstream media. "But those people were inaccessible to me," Adkisson added, "... so I went after the foot soldiers." He also said:

"Know this if nothing else: This was a hate crime. I hate the damn left-wing liberals. There is a vast left-wing conspiracy in this country & these liberals are working together to attack every decent & honorable institution in the nation, trying to turn this country into a communist state. Shame on them.... "

The rhetoric about a vast left-wing conspiracy is straight out of Fox News, or Ann Coulter's book that says "the only way to talk to a liberal is with a baseball bat" or Dick Morris' books about liberals entitled "Traitor" and "Off With Their Heads."

(Wait -- cutting people's heads off ... isn't that what we condemn Middle Eastern terrorists for doing?)

Adkisson's manifesto fits right in with this crowd: "Liberals are a pest like termites. Millions of them Each little bite contributes to the downfall of this great nation." He only parts company with his highly-paid leadership when he addresses the solution: "The only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is to kill them in the streets. Kill them where they gather. I'd like to encourage other like minded people to do what I've done. If life aint worth living anymore don't just kill yourself. do something for your Country before you go. Go Kill Liberals."

How explicit a link do we need before it becomes reasonable to at least suspect that there might be a connection between violent rhetoric (traitors, Nazis, baseball bats, decapitation) and violent deeds? Why are media critics like Howard Kurtz so ready to exonerate O'Reilly and his cohort from even the possibility that their angry words might be a contributing factor?


Which is not to say that I, or anyone I know, would consider abridging or limiting Bill O'Reilly's freedom of speech. The way to fight the hateful aspects of their speech, and the ugly atmosphere it creates, is with our speech. That form of engagement isn't just a right. It's a duty.

That's a point that seemed lost on Air America radio host Ron Kuby when I appeared on his show after the Knoxville shooting. He insisted that I was arguing for suppression of speech, even though I hadn't said or implied any such thing. It seems reasonable to hold the following set of positions simultaneously:

1) that freedom of speech is an inviolable right;
2) that some speech can encourage harmful actions;
3) that we should point that out and criticize such speech where appropriate.

Some people are concerned that certain types of speech will be suppressed if we suggest that they foster or encourage acts of violence. But if a causal link seems apparent, why should we be reluctant to point that out? Remember, the Left appeared to be growing its own violent wing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But mainstream liberals were quick to condemn acts by groups like the Weather Underground. Those movements died out. Yet Rachel Maddow provided a litany of right-wing violence last night, with no corresponding violence from the left. Is that a coincidence? Or does part of the difference stem from the lack of violent and angry imagery from mainstream liberals?

I would never suppress the anti-abortion magazine that suggested killing doctors like Dr. Tiller was "justifiable homicide." But I won't hesitate to say that talk like that could get somebody killed. Scott Roeder subscribed to that magazine. Who can say that couldn't have inspired him to kill? The same is true of other violent rhetoric - rhetoric beamed night after night from every cable-ready television in the country.

Once - just once - I'd like to see Bill O'Reilly or Bernard Goldberg express regret for the possibility, however remote, that they contributed to an act of violence. But apparently O'Reilly would rather blame his critics than search his soul.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at: