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Leo W. Gerard Headshot

Rights Come with Responsibilities; the Right Shirks Theirs

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Five years ago, a 47-year-old Missouri woman began a duplicitous on-line courtship through MySpace with a 13-year-old neighbor who once had been friends with the woman's daughter.

The adult, Lori Drew, flirted with the 13-year-old, Megan Meier, through the guise of a fictitious, 16-year-old character named Josh Evans. Suddenly, "Josh" broke up with Miss Meier, writing to her, "the world would be a better place without you." Just hours later, Miss Meier hung herself in her bedroom.

Words have consequences.

Drew wasn't charged with the child's death. In fact, a judge reversed her conviction on computer fraud charges, saying the law was intended to deal with hacking, not murder. But for most Americans, there is something deeply disturbing, something morally, if not criminally, wrong with deliberate torment, with predatory viciousness. Drew eluded accountability the same way conservatives are seeking to evade culpability after their irresponsible speech may have provoked the delusional to violence.

It's hard to draw a line directly from Drew's cruel words to the noose around Miss Meier's neck. Similarly, it's difficult to directly link violent political rhetoric like Sarah Palin's illustration showing gun sight cross hairs on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Arizona district to the shattering of Giffords' office door after her vote for health insurance reform last March or Jared L. Loughner's shooting spree last weekend that left six dead and Giffords and 13 others wounded.

What is clear, however, is that vile and threatening communication that becomes so repetitive that it's routine has the effect of sanctioning an atmosphere of violence.

Conservatives are yammering that they're not the only ones who engage in brutal rhetoric. That's true. But in a contest for production of violent words and images, Republicans would, to use their words, "kill" the Democrats.

The Department of Homeland Security concluded in an April 2009 internal report that right-wing extremism, with a growing potential for violence, was on the rise. That was followed last spring by Capitol security officials reporting a tripling of threats against members of Congress -- almost all from opponents of health care reform -- in other words, from Republicans, right-wingers or people influenced by GOP TV and radio front men who personally profit from the hostile climate they generate.

They didn't stop though they had fair warning about the consequences. Consider the case of Byron Williams. He launched a 12-minute shoot out with California Highway Patrol officers last July after they stopped him for erratic driving. A police affidavit filed the following day said Williams intended to "start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at The Tides Foundation and the ACLU."

The Right has for decades slammed the ACLU, whose sole purpose is to protect constitutional rights, but Glenn Beck had made the Tides Foundation, once an obscure progressive organization, famous by attacking it repeatedly -- at least 29 times between January and the July shoot out last year, including two tirades the week before Williams began his assassination mission.

Williams, who was armed during the shootout with a handgun, shotgun, rifle and body armor, said he watched FOX News to see Beck, who blew his mind, and who he viewed as a "schoolteacher."

Still Beck expressed no remorse and tried to squirm out of any responsibility for inciting Williams, saying on his show:

I am the only one that has mentioned the Tides Foundation... So that's what they're using. This guy couldn't have found this out on his own; it had to come from me... America, if you don't think that they will use anything, they will. They absolutely will.

Words do have consequences, Mr. Beck, no matter how many times you cravenly shout denials.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives insisted on reading the U.S. Constitution on the opening day of the new Congressional session. It was, however, nothing but political theater because conservatives disassociate the rights it grants from the incumbent responsibilities. Right-wing leaders like Beck disavow responsibility altogether.

When it was Arizona Rep. Giffords' turn to read, the chamber had come upon the First Amendment, which guarantees, among other things, the right to free speech. It even guarantees Republican Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl the right to go on television the day after the shootings and contend that Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik didn't have the right to speak about the complicity in the crime of vile, hateful and threatening political speech.

The courts have established the "crowded theater" test to determine when free speech ends and responsibility begins. Americans are responsible to refrain from yelling "fire" in a crowded theater when, in fact, there are no flames. The freedom to yell ends at the point when it endangers others.

Republicans are recklessly yelling. During the fall campaign, Arizona Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle suggested her supporters consider their Second Amendment rights if Sen. Harry Reid were reelected. Florida radio host Joyce Kaufman said at a Tea Party rally on July 4, "If ballots don't work, bullets will," and then was hired by new GOP Congressman Allen West to serve as chief of staff. Tea Party contender Jesse Kelly held a fund raiser in June asking his supporters to "get on target to... remove Gabrielle Giffords from office" by shooting a "fully automatic M16" with him.

Republicans bear responsibility for the consequences of this kind of brutal discourse -- a political atmosphere charged with violence. Just like Glenn Beck, though, Republicans guard their rights, but shirk the concomitant responsibilities.