Hate Speech in Arizona

Let us grieve the slain and wounded in Tucson, and pray for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, targeted for assassination by a clearly unbalanced young man. Rep. Giffords was shot as she made herself available to citizens exercising the most basic of rights: "to peaceably assemble" and petition their representative.

The heinous act has generated a good debate about the connection between the rhetoric of violence and violence itself. As we approach the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, this reminds me not just of Dr. King's assassination, but also of his response to the violence wreaked upon black citizens in the South seeking to assemble peaceably.

In Alabama, for example, Gov. George Wallace cynically fanned racist fires with his rhetoric and actions, denouncing outside agitators, calling on Alabamans to "stand up for segregation" and decrying the "frightful example of oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this state by... the federal government."

Civil rights leaders warned that Wallace's rhetoric was like fuel poured upon the kindling of anger and fear caused by blacks demanding their rights. Three months after he stood in the door at the University of Alabama, a bomb planted by Klansmen at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church killed four children. One day later, King stated the simple truth: "The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Gov. Wallace."

It wasn't that Wallace condoned violence, and he surely did not want the lives of four little girls snuffed out. But King argued that you can't simply walk away from the consequences of your actions. Wallace's inflammatory rhetoric and reckless actions fanned the flames of anger and fear of the back-alley racists.

There is no evidence that Jared Loughner, the alleged gunman in Tucson, was a member of a right-wing hate group. He was clearly a young man whose mind was unraveling. But it is exactly the mentally unstable who are most likely to be influenced by an atmosphere filled with hate and murderous rhetoric.

In Arizona, the kindling was there. The economy has been hit hard by the financial collapse, with employment opportunities for young people particularly limited. With families losing jobs or homes, fear and depression are inevitable. Add to this a venomous, racially charged debate on immigration and health care reform, as well as some of the worst gun-control laws in the country.

Arizona's conservative governor and legislature made it legal for anyone over 21 to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. After an instant background check, Loughner was able to buy over the counter a semiautomatic Glock 9mm gun with a 30 bullet magazine.

As Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik stated, Arizona has become "a Mecca for prejudice and bigotry," a cauldron of Tea Party anger, right-wing hate groups and anti-immigrant posturing.

Giffords' life was threatened, her office vandalized. Her Tea Party Republican opponent had invited supporters to "remove her from office" and "shoot a fully automatic M16" with him at a campaign rally.

Giffords was demonized as a traitor, a communist, a fascist, a job killer. The congresswoman was distressed when Sarah Palin's PAC targeted her district by putting it in the crosshairs of a gun site on Palin's Web page. In next-door Nevada, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle suggested that frustrated voters might have to take up "Second Amendment remedies."

Extreme statements are, as many have stated, as protected under the First Amendment as any speech. And vitriolic rhetoric in American politics can be traced back to the earliest days of the republic. But that doesn't mean there are no consequences.

With rights come responsibilities. In Alabama, King stated what everyone knew to be true: that the extreme rhetoric and actions of Wallace were like setting the woods on fire.

Let us defend every person's right to speech, to fierce and independent expression. But let us not fail to challenge those who exercise those rights irresponsibly, particularly those with megaphones like public leaders or media stars. In the hotbed of politics, we expect them to set an example, not to light a match