One of the inevitable traits of human society is that bad people are going to do bad things. Whether or not you can come to grips with this — whether your response to bad people doing bad things is proportional and reasoned, or hysterical and innumerate — tends to determine your approach to the relationship between government and individuals. If the inevitability of bad people doing bad things tends to freak you out and make you want to OMG DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW, then you're probably going to supporting increasing government control of individual behavior. If bad people doing bad things makes you ask questions like "are individuals better at protecting themselves from this? Could government conceivably prevent it without side effects that are worse? Is it practical or possible to prevent this rather than punishing it?", then you are more likely to be a fan of limited government.
Bonnie Erbe, an opinion writer for U.S. News and World Report and cbsnews.com and a PBS host, is clearly not a fan of limited government. Bonnie Erbe wants to "round up promoters of hate." She wants to do it for YOU.
This week, Bonnie Erbe is very upset about bad people doing bad things. Specifically, she is upset about three shootings — the Holocaust Museum shooting of brave security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns by racist nutcase James W. von Brunn, the shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder, and the recruiting station shooting of Private William Long by Abdulhakim Muhammad.
Bonnie Erbe sees these murders as a call — and an opportunity — for enacting laws against hate speech in America:
She said something must be done about ridding the Internet and the public dialogue of hate speech. I agree.
We can't wait for folks to actually do things, Erbe argues. We ought to "round up" such usual suspects based on their words:
It's not enough to prosecute these murders as murders. They are hate-motivated crimes and each of these men had been under some sort of police surveillance prior to their actions. Isn't it time we started rounding up promoters of hate before they kill?
But what is "hate speech"? What does it mean to "promote hate"? Who should be "rounded up"? Erbe will work out those details later. Perhaps she has in mind some government ministry, like Canada's miserable experiment with the bureaucratization of speech regulation. Perhaps she simply means, as she suggests, to amend federal and state criminal law to allow people to be "rounded up" for "promoting hate."
Could Erbe have an extremely narrow, First-Amendment-friendly definition of this that reaches only incitements to imminent lawless behavior? Maybe. But probably not. In the middle of her call for sweeping and ill-defined censorship, Erbe calls out Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his recent bigoted comment that it is Jews — rather than President Obama's new-found prudence — prevent him from meeting with the President. Perhaps she means this as a non-sequitur, and doesn't mean to imply that a racist and moronic suggestion by a marginal jackass should result in said jackass being "rounded up." But again, probably not.
Here's the thing — no society short of an authoritarian nightmare can prevent the von Brunns and Roeders and Muhammads of the world from killing others if they want to. There are always going to be evil, hateful, crazy people, and unless we're all under 24/7 lockdown and surveillance, they're always going to be able to commit such atrocities if they don't care about dying or getting caught in the process. Heaping restriction upon restriction onto the 99.99% of us who aren't evil racist nutbags will never make us completely safe. The authoritarian urge is therefore not only objectionable to people who want to live free of government control; it's also ultimately fruitless. It's also self-defeating, as it tends to generate more people willing to use violence.
Similarly, no one is ever going to be able to eradicate hate, racism, and evil from American society, let alone from the internet, a system that by its nature evades censorship. Trying to prevent politically motivated attacks like this by censoring "hate speech" is like trying to prevent bank robberies by censoring advertisements that promote greed. Moreover, no one has ever explained to me how we can draw a principled and First-Amendment-complaint line between "hate speech" and permissible speech. With very excitable and Very Concerned People like Bonnie Erbe at the helm of the effort, I have no confidence that anyone ever will.
The three murders Erbe highlights are awful. Their perpetrators should be condemned. But what ought to scare rational and numerate Americans more — that they will be one of the three in three hundred million killed in such an attack, or that they will be one of the three hundred million who might be "rounded up" if their speech is deemed inappropriate under the society envisioned by the Bonnie Erbes of this world?
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Hate Speech Debate on More Perfect Live - September 5th, 2017
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- America At The End of All Hypotheticals - August 14th, 2017
- Lawsplainer: Why John Oliver Is Anti-Diversity Now - August 11th, 2017