Last week, I focused on criticizing that some people have been using in the face of recent news events. I focused on those arguments because I suspect that most of my readers are liberal atheist types and I wanted to confront what I saw as widespread errors among such a group.
However, I also want to present some lines of reasoning that I hold to be more sound.
One principle that I have defended repeatedly in this blog is that, in an open society with freedom of speech – where everybody is allowed the liberty to express their opinion and to persuade others through words and private action, acts of violence are unjustified.
By "private actions" I mean those actions that are backed by decisions that one does not have to justify to others. Decisions on who to date, where to shop, what to eat, who to vote for, and what charities to give money to, within certain limits, count as “private actions” in this context.
People generally have many and strong reason to promote an aversion to violence in a politically open society. Those who think that violence is justified in such a society are ople who create societies like India, Pakistan, Iraq, and (until recently), Northern Ireland, where violence thwarts a great many strong and stable desires.
Even if you disagree with the law – even if you think the law represents a great travesty, as long as you have the liberty to express your opinion and to try to persuade others through words and private actions, you have no right to use guns and bombs. Society has good reason to promote an aversion to such attitudes, which means good reason to promote aversions to those who express such attitudes.
Threats of violence are not protected speech.
In an article my Rachel Maddow, she quoted Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, as saying,(See: Alternet, Right-Wing Terrorism Must Be Stopped
I stand before you today saying about George Tiller what I said in his life. He was a mass murderer. George Tiller was a mass murderer. He killed tens of thousands of innocent human beings at his own hand. George Tiller was a murderer and he was doing something that was literally demonic.
This is perfectly legitimate. Terry stated a moral proposition which he may now go on to back up. We, then, may assess the evidence he provides to determine whether his statements are true or false. I hold that they are false, but I could not put his words outside of the realm of protected free speech.
Maddow then went on to write:
Another anti-abortion extremist group, Operation Save America, also put out a statement celebrating George Tiller's murder today, saying, quote, “He is now vowing before Jesus and confessing that Jesus is right and that he, George Tiller, was wrong.”
Again, find. Absurdly false, but still a legitimately comment.
In fact, prohibiting these types of statements would violate the condition of having an open society where people can try to persuade others through words and private actions that makes acts of violence unjustified. If any attempt is made to block these types of statements, then those who are opposed to abortion would not have an open society, and we leave those who hold such opinions no form of expression that is not criminal.
On the other hand, anybody who praises the act of violence itself or those who commit such an act, praises those who praise such an act, or provides instructions on how to get away with such an act, can legitimately be branded 'terrorist' and treated accordingly.
Another quote from Maddow:
If you go to the Web site of the Army of God, you will find hagiographic websites for anti-abortion terrorist movement heroes, like Paul Hill and Eric Rudolph and Shelly Shannon. You can actually scroll through pages and pages of mug shots and descriptions of bombings and shootings and murders and attempted murders—all praising the perpetrators, and even suggesting ways to get away with the same types of crimes that these people committed but you could do it without getting caught.
Here is a group of people who should be rounded up and thrown in jail.
If they should protest that a right to freedom of speech is being violated, I would remind them that a 'right' only makes sense as an immunity from violence (and, by extension, threats of violence). Indeed, the perpetrators in this case, in claiming a right to freedom of speech, are claiming a right to immunity from violence and threats of violence for what they wrote. And, yet, at the same time, they are advocates of violence and threats of violence against others.
In making this claim that these people should be punished, it is possible that a reader might say, "Well, the government is not going to do anything about these groups, so I WILL." Any time anybody advocates that a group of people are doing something they ought not to be doing, they should realize the possibility that at least one reader will impatiently decide not to endure official inaction and take matters into his own hands.
Then there will likely be somebody who will assert that people like me, in writing that those who work on the Army of God web site are people who deserve to be punished, is the real culprit here.
So the wheel goes around.
Yet, in my own writings, I make it a point to declare that, in an open society, any proposition I write about a group being blameworthy and deserving of punishment is NOT a call for private violence. It is a moral proposition being put forward as a topic of PUBLIC debate.
The culprits, in this case, are those who commit acts of private violence, and those who explicitly encourage acts of private violence. Not those who say, “That type of action is wrong and those who perform that type of action should be punished.”
The latter type of statement is a thesis that, then, should be openly debated in an open society – a condition that requires a moral permission to make these types of statements in spite of the fact that certain individuals may be inspired to commit acts of private violence. The former type of statement – the acts of private violence and statements of encouragement for such acts – are the type that must be condemned and condemned harshly if we are to maintain a peaceful and open society.
I would like to close, however, with one final question. Why is Rachel Maddow only concerned with "right-wing terrorism". It is not "right-wing terrorism" that must be stopped. It is "acts of private violence or advocacy of private violence in an open society" that must be stopped.
Another thing that must be stopped is attempts to close a society by branding statements of the form, "People who do X are doing something immoral and should be punished" as incitements to violence. People who make this type of claim are attempting to close society and place certain propositions outside of the realm of open debate. Thus, they are taking away a premise required in order to condemn private violence and advocacy of private violence.
These should be our proper targets