Since that terrible day in Tucson, Ariz., when a deranged young man murdered six people, including a federal judge, and wounded a dozen others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there has been considerable discussion about the relationship between speech and deeds, specifically political rhetoric and assassinations..
Two weeks ago I wrote that the attempt by liberals to link conservatives to assassinations goes back to the murder of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. What I might have added is that the barrage of media commentary alleged, first, that a right-wing extremist had killed JFK; next, that the climate of hate in Dallas, Texas, the site of the terrible deed, was responsible; and finally, that American society had somehow "caused" the death.
Again, the fact that the assassin turned out to be a self-avowed Marxist, who not only defected to the Soviet Union and married a Russian woman, but was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a communist front, and had previously met with Cuban officials in Mexico, should have put an end to that sort of talk. But the claim that more shots were fired from a grassy knoll kept it alive.
That the claim of conservative responsibility at the outset was politically motivated is beyond doubt, having first been uttered by no less that Chief Justice Earl Warren, and picked up by political, academic and media figures on television broadcasts during the four days before the president's funeral service.
Lyndon Johnson, JFK's vice president, upon succession to the higher office, did all that he could to glorify his unfortunate predecessor as a martyr and practically a saint, even though there was nothing particularly outstanding about the Kennedy Administration. Every speech, every plea for the passage of legislation, was accompanied by a call to honor the fallen president's memory by carrying out Democratic policies.
This was so successful that it cast a pall over the Republican party, whose ultimate candidate, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, was subjected to outrageous smears ranging from his being a bomb-happy man to holding dangerously extreme right-wing views. Before the assassination, public opinion polls showed that Goldwater had a chance at defeating Kennedy. But his candidacy never recovered from the way in which Democrats and liberals chose to spin the events of Nov. 22, 1963.
It is fair to characterize what was done in Kennedy's name as hate speech, for it unfairly stigmatized millions of American citizens who were not supportive of what Kennedy called his New Frontier and Johnson subsequently styled his Great Society. That is, in the name of denouncing the so-called hate speech of conservative Republicans, the creators of the Camelot myth themselves exhibited manifest hatred with no basis in fact.
We now know that the man who went on a shooting rampage earlier this month had no clear political views, did not pay attention to news reports and in fact had a personal — and altogether baseless — grudge against Congresswoman Giffords. But that has not stopped the vitriol, notwithstanding President Obama's timely call for refraining from jumping to false conclusions about the motives of the shooter/murderer, or speculating about the political climate in which it supposedly occurred.
Indeed, the more conservatives who were named as somehow accessories to murder, such as Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party Patriots, and so on, the more that the purveyors of the big lie continue to distort the record. The mere fact that Palin used the term Blood Libel correctly to designate the indefensible charges against her became a cause of liberal consternation just because she used the term.
I know from practical experience about both hate speech and its tenuous connection to any threat to my person. Usually when I write about homosexual marriage and sometimes about abortion on demand, I have received e-mails that express the wish that I were dead, or at least that it is fortunate that in due course I will be dead and will no longer be around to express my offensive opinions.
Almost weekly, the anonymous responses to my column on the Internet express outrage, disgust and hatred for my commentary, and almost never a clear argument on the basis of which I could respond and engage in some sort of dialogue. Obviously, these have not deterred me, but they do deeply disappoint me. There can be none of the civil dialogue that President Obama called for if it commences with vitriolic speech. Yet one can always hope.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com.