Monday, June 08, 2009

Private Violence and Advocacy of Private Violence

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


Mike said...

For a television commentator, I am fairly impressed with her ethical view on the matter. She was explicit that we respect the speech rights of those who oppose abortion and their right to advocate changing the law. She also made a clear point, as Alonzo did, that when prosecuting speech, we must distinguish between the kind that advocates unofficial violence, and the kind that advocates official punishment- all while protecting civil liberties.

On page 2 she suggests that we can consider and officially prosecute the advocacy of violence by a anti-choice group, "terrorism", but on the condition that:

freedom of association, freedom of the press are to be protected, freedom of speech are to be protected at any cost

On page 5 she makes a clear distinction between the two types of speech Alonzo addresses and concludes with:‘s important to me as an American that people who are pro-life feel that they can safely articulate those views and that they are not being attacked for what extremists have done.

Alonzo wrote: Why is Rachel Maddow only concerned with "right-wing terrorism"?

I see no reason in this program to assume R. Maddow is only concerned with just Right-Wing Terrorism. The program was intended to discuss the consideration of a recent event as terrorism, and its vocal advocates, terrorists. The editorial staff did chose a poor headline- the subtitle is more appropriate, referring specifically to the violent acts of "anti-choice extremists."

Jayman said...

If we assume that the following two points are true, can one make a convincing argument that killing George Tiller, even if done by a private citizen, was wrong?

(1) Tiller was a mass murderer
(2) The U.S. government was never going to stop Tiller

You appear to allow for vigilante violence when the law is so unjust as to deprive people of freedom of speech. I am guessing that you also find the use of vigilante violence acceptable if the government were trying to kill innocent people. For example, I am guessing that you would find nothing wrong with Jews during the Holocaust fighting back nor would you have a problem with Gentiles fighting on behalf of the Jews.

If I am correct on the above, then I am at a loss for the difference between you and the likes of Randall Terry, except that you do not believe Tiller was a mass murderer while Terry does. In other words, if you became convinced that Tiller was a mass murderer I am not clear as to why you would not kill him or wish someone else to kill him.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In Maddow's article, she utters platitudes about the value of freedom of speech and claims that she only opposes "advocating violence", but she defines "advocating violence" so broadly that you can hardly provide me with an example of speech that does not "advocate violence".

I gave two examples where Maddow claims that text qualifies as "advocating violence" that come no where near that definition. Indeed, if we accept Maddow's claim that the text she cites is "advocating violence", then many if not most of the posts in this blog qualify as "advocating violence" and would not be protected speech on her account.

Indeed, Maddow's own presentation would qualify as "advocating violence". In demonizing Bill O'Reilly, for example, she is leaving the door open to the possibility that a private citizen will declare that O'Reilly is to be blamed for the murder of Dr. Tiller. That deraged individual might then conclude, "If the government is not going to do anything about it, I will."

All it takes is one individual.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You seem to be suggesting that my argument for allowing some cases of vigilantee violence hinges on degree of injustice, and that violating freedom of speech is unjust to a particularly high degree.

That is mistaken.

If a country allows for freedom of speech, then it provides alternative forms of expression other than violence, thus making violence illegitimate. It is not "degree of injustice" that is the indicator here, but the fit.

Jews during the holocaust were not allowed freedom of expression or the freedom to participate in the political system as equals. This is why violent defense of their rights was appropriate.

However, in the United States, an innocent person convicted of a crime and sentenced to death has no right to kill his guards and escape.

Black slaves had a right to armed rebellion against their slave masters. However, Japanese Americans interred during World War II had no right to violent rebellion - they only had a right to seek remedy for the injustices committed against them using the courts and the political process.

I think that there are a great many injustices in this world. I have a right to contribute to the national debate on those issues. If society ignores my arguments and continues to commit things that I view to be wrong, one possible reason is because I am mistaken. It takes a great deal of arrogance to say that, "I am no certain that I am right - even though everybody disagrees with me - that I am justified in maiming and killing others."

If a society is open, you have a right to participate equally in a non-violent public debate. That is all.

Mike said...

I did not see anywhere in the transcript where she sought to define, broadly or not, what qualifies as violent speech, other than say there is a distinction and it must be made and upheld.

She certainly meant to condemn Terry's speech for its suggestive nature and the intensity, and unrepentant nature of his condemnation of Dr. Tiller, and she makes a guilt-by-association claim since the murderer was active on Terry's website, but she did not say that Terry's speech itself was illegal.I did take away that she is suggesting (or rather asking her guest) that Terry, and similar groups deserve scrutiny and investigation by law enforcement, since they appear to have a motive in encouraging private acts of violence against abortionists. Are we not allowed to cast suspicion based on the content of suggestive, but otherwise legal speech? Can we not ask that law enforcement procedures (with restrictions) be used to investigate people and groups based on suggestive speech?

I see that as reasonable- Police should be allowed and encouraged to investigate people and groups based on attitudes expressed in the insinuations of otherwise legal speech, when there is a related crime. The more intense the language, the more possibility they have motive to be involved in the crime in question, and thus deserve more scrutiny.

Jayman said...

"Jews during the holocaust were not allowed freedom of expression or the freedom to participate in the political system as equals. This is why violent defense of their rights was appropriate."

So, if the Jews were allowed to speak freely and participate in the political system as equals, but were still condemned to death through the political process, then they would have no right to fight back and could only resort to private actions in protest? Also, couldn't one claim that fetuses have no one to speak on their behalf and are not represented in the political system as equals?

"However, Japanese Americans interred during World War II had no right to violent rebellion - they only had a right to seek remedy for the injustices committed against them using the courts and the political process."

Suppose that, instead of interring Japanese Americans, the U.S. had executed all Japanese Americans. Would you feel the same way? It isn't like aborted fetuses can remedy the alleged injustice of abortion through the courts and the political process. Someone may try to do it on their behalf but that is of no use to any fetus that has already been aborted.

Mike said...


A society will crumble if enough people think that private and illegal violence is justified, even to save potential adorable babies. To feel morally entitled to ignore the political and legal process, when it is available freely, is to declare an entire democratic government invalid, not just the parts one doesn't like. Such a person or group, in essence, becomes a state unto themselves, declaring their own laws, rights, and courses of action- tyrants pursuing their self-interest, no matter how noble, against the remaining people of an otherwise free and open society. In essence, they would be declaring war.

I think it is no coincidence that extremist pro-life groups choose names like, "Operation Rescue", and, "Army of God."

Jayman said...

Mike, in case it isn't clear, I am playing devil's advocate. I am trying to think of a way to convince an extreme pro-lifer (like an Army of God member) that their actions are wrong even if abortion is murder.

Unfortunately, the reasons you and Alonzo give seem woefully unconvincing. If we replace "fetuses" with "atheists" I have a hard time believing you (assuming you're an atheist) would not resort to violence as you're being led to your execution.

Moving on to your comments:

"A society will crumble if enough people think that private and illegal violence is justified, even to save potential adorable babies. To feel morally entitled to ignore the political and legal process, when it is available freely, is to declare an entire democratic government invalid, not just the parts one doesn't like."

It is hard to see why a pro-life extremist would care if a society and government that permits mass murder crumbles. I imagine they would cheer on its destruction like people cheered when the Berlin wall came down.

"Such a person or group, in essence, becomes a state unto themselves, declaring their own laws, rights, and courses of action- tyrants pursuing their self-interest, no matter how noble, against the remaining people of an otherwise free and open society. In essence, they would be declaring war."

If defending millions of innocent lives is not a just cause for war, then what is?

Mike said...


My point was not to suggest that the extremists are wrong, just to define the nature and consequences for resorting to violence and discarding a democratic process when you don't get your way. Such actions against a society acts of war, and in these times, defined as "terrorism."

The problem for them is that their premise that conceived embryos and developing fetuses are persons and citizens is not accepted by the majority in this democracy. They are willing to intimidate and murder members of this peaceful and open society to change the laws that could be changed by peaceful means.

I now must ask them this: what other desires to they have that I should fear their actions? Why have a peaceful democracy at all, when we could just band together and coerce others to our will?

I would condemn their actions as morally wrong, not for their strong opinions on abortion, but for attacking a significant and only recent development in human civilization: the opportunity for every member to mold society with reason and consensus instead of violence. To return to barrel-of-a-gun tribal diplomacy would come at too great a cost to humanity and civilization, compared to the cost of the potential lives we are loosing abortion.

Jayman said...

Eneasz, determining who is correct in regards to abortion is notoriously difficult. If the parties in the abortion debate cannot reach an agreement (and I see little chance that they will) are we to resign ourselves to being at each other's throats?

Eneasz said...

Jayman -

I understand your concern, and I share it. However in the case of abortion, I feel real-world facts really are important. It is true that a fetus doesn't have any neural activity that could be called significant for the first few months of pregnancy. That alone should rank it at a sub-animal level during that time. And it is important to take into consideration that there are at least 3 lives at stake here - that of the (eventual) child, and the mother, and the father. Some weight should be given to all of them, moreso if the thing in question cannot rightly be called a conscious being yet. We have no problem ending the metabolic functions of an ex-person who is completely brain dead. We shouldn't have much more trouble stopping those of one who doesn't even have a brain yet.

(and, if you're wondering, I call it "ending the metabolic functions" of a brain-dead person instead of "killing" a brain-dead person because they are already dead in every way that matters, aside from continued metabolism)

This is why I stress the importance of getting your facts right. The only real defense against these is claiming that a single-celled organism (at the time of conception) is immediately imbued with a "soul". Unfortunatly (for those in the opposition) they cannot even DEFINE what a soul is, much less demonstrate that it exists or has any impact on reality.

In the face of all this, it is fair to say that - at the very least - those in the pro-life movement should give some benefit of the doubt and NOT murder doctors and mothers who choose abortion. They should be willing to concede that they might be wrong, even if it's only the slightest concession, that they might be just wrong enough to hold back on murdering a demonstrably conscious person (ie: doctor/mother).

In my opinion, this is where the line between killing jews and aborting fetsuses is drawn. One is a demonstrably conscious being. One is - at the very least - highly debatable. Those who, for whatever reason, cannot see this distinction should be condemned, punished, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, so that others who also fail to see the distinction will be discouraged from mimicing those actions.

Abortion is a highly-charged subject. I still have mixed emotions about it. But it should be a topic that is settled by facts, not dogma.