Two quite different stories making news today reveal how the descent of political debate into hatred and abusive propaganda can have an awful effect on innocent lives.
At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk we are often in discussion with friends, colleagues and commentators who essentially believe in unfettered free speech. We often hear an argument which runs something like this: “The correct response to this nonsense is ridicule: given the oxygen of publicity, these people condemn themselves out of their own mouths. It is more important to preserve the liberty of all at the price of allowing nutters to say what they like, rather than curtail freedom of speech.” This argument is advanced regularly by the right in America, but is by no means limited to there. It occurs in all corners of the blogosphere, it is evidenced by recent moves by the Australian Government, just as one example, and it is a favoured line by libertarians worldwide.
Disgusting “humour” like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of “free speech” protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.
We respect the passion of those who advance this argument against, for example, anti race-hate legislation, but over many years we have come, reluctantly, to disagree with it.
Yes, we recognise that the “elephant in the room” is “Where do you draw the line once you start to censor free speech?” but we nevertheless also believe that a line must be drawn.
And the reason for that line being drawn is the encouragement given to those who would take extreme ideals and translate them into real-world violence, whether because they take the comments to their logical conclusion, seeing no moral distinction between holding a violent thought and acting on it, or merely because they are mentally unhinged.
We see no desperate need to be able to advocate ridicule and violence that justifies the fact that it leads, as night follows day, to real injury and death for innocent people.
For example, in recent days we have seen yet another shooting perpetrated by members of the far-right in America.
A day before going on a shooting rampage that left two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander dead, Jerad Miller, one of the killers, posted this on Facebook:
“The dawn of a new day. May all of our coming sacrifices be worth it.”
Amanda Miller created and posted this Bitstrip comic to her Facebook six months ago.
Witnesses reportedly said Miller, 31, and his wife, Amanda, shouted, “This is a revolution” and “We’re freedom fighters” when they ambushed the officers who were on their lunch break at a pizza restaurant.
If their social media accounts are any indication, rants about attacks and disgust with authority were a common thread in their lives.
“To the people in the world…your lucky i can’t kill you now but remember one day one day i will get you because one day all hell will break lose and i’ll be standing in the middle of it with a shot gun in one hand and a pistol in the other,” Amanda Miller posted on Facebook on May 23, 2011.
After killing Police Officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, who were having lunch having clocked off, and taking their weapons, police said the Millers fled across the street to a Walmart store, where they shot and killed customer Joseph Wilcox, 31, who apparently confronted the shooters with his own weapon, before apparently taking their own lives in a suicide pact.
The couple, who married in September 2012, moved from Lafayette, Indiana, to Las Vegas, Nevada, in January of this year. Photos on 22-year-old Amanda Miller’s Facebook page shows the couple celebrating Christmas with family two weeks before departing for Nevada. In one photo, she poses with copies of the “Shooter’s Bible” and “Extreme Survival.” “My new books that my Grandma Paula got me!” she wrote on Facebook. The merging of influences between the “survivalist” community, gun aficionados and extreme militia-style groups, laced with racist and white supremacist groups, is a key concern for both community organisations and law enforcement in America.
It is not the lawful promotion of legal activities or legitimate opinion that causes concern, rather it is the ability of those on the fringe of those movements to hijack the genre and spread concepts of ‘legitimate’ violence to the soft-minded.
According to the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Jerad Miller had a long history of arrests and convictions for drug offences while in Indiana.
In a July 8, 2013, video he posted to YouTube, he vents about the government making a profit from an ankle monitor he has to pay for and wear while under house arrest. He also rants about the local courthouse and questions why citizens need permits.
“You have to go down to that big stone structure, monument to tyranny, and submit, crawling, groveling on your hands and knees,” he says on the video. “Sounds a little like Nazi Germany to me or maybe communist Russia.”
On Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a neighbour said the Millers might have been planning a larger attack on an unidentified court building. According to the story, the couple’s next-door neighbour and friend was holding documents for the couple that included detailed plans to take over a courthouse and execute public officials. Other reports link the couple of the recent Cliven Bundy ranch saga when armed militia lined up against government officials to protect the ranchowner’s right to continue to illegally graze his cattle on public land, although hard evidence has yet to be produced that they were there. UPDATE 12 June, video has now emerged of Jared Miller speaking at the Bundy ranch, from which he and his wife were asked to leave because of their extreme views.
Jared Miller used the handle “USATruePatriot” on another YouTube account where video titles included “second amendment logic,” “Would George Washington use an AK?,” and “Police confiscate guns and threatened to kill me.”
In two videos, he stands in front of an American flag dressed as the Joker and rambles about what it would be like to be president of the United States.
“A new world order under the Joker,” he shouts while belting out an evil laugh.
Jerad Miller’s profile picture on Facebook is of two knives behind a mask and the word “PATRIOT” in stars and stripes. Much of his social activity was centered on Second Amendment gun laws, government spying and drug laws. Six days before Sunday’s rampage, he posted on Facebook that, “to stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed.”
“We can hope for peace. We must, however, prepare for war. We face an enemy that is not only well funded, but who believe they fight for freedom and justice. … We, cannot with good conscience leave this fight to our children, because the longer we wait, our enemies become better equipped and recruit more mercenaries of death, willing to do a tyrants bidding without question. I know you are fearful, as am I. We certainly stand before a great and powerful enemy. I, however would rather die fighting for freedom, than live on my knees as a slave.”
Investigators with the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center aid the Millers’ web writings were typical of right-wing, militia-type thinking. But the SPLC’s intelligence files don’t show the couple to be members of an organized group.
“It’s just the two of them doing this crazy thing that the two of them decided to do,” the director of the SPLC’s intelligence project commented.
The ADL says in the past five years, there have been 43 separate incidences of violence between domestic extremists and U.S. law enforcement. All but four of the attacks were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, according to the ADL.
“The two police officers who lost their lives are only the latest in a series of casualties in a de facto war being waged against police by right-wing extremists, including both anti-government extremists and white supremacists,” Mark Pitcavage, ADL director of investigative research, said in a written statement. “Some extremists have deliberately targeted police, while others have responded violently when meeting police in unplanned encounters. The killings are not the effort of a concerted campaign, but rather a series of independent attacks and clashes stemming from right-wing ideologies.”
It is the propagation of these ludicrously extreme ideologies – of left and right, which is where strands of political thinking actually merge, in our opinion – that needs to be carefully examined. The capacity for unhinged individuals to create mayhem is simply too obvious to allow their mental furies to be whipped up. Indeed, anti-terrorism experts now say that the ability of propaganda materials to provoke murderous behaviour by previously unobserved and not-formally-aligned individuals is actually their biggest headache. As “spectacular” attacks on a more alert West have declined, so the capacity to use words to enrage and empower lunatics becomes a more ever-present threat. One madman with a “dirty” low-blast nuclear weapon (which apparently is not that difficult to create if you can access the right materials) could take out the population of a small city. Anywhere.
Meanwhile, the other end of the scale was also on tragic display. Thirty people – ten of them insurgents – were killed as Pakistan’s military fought an all-night battle Monday with Taliban gunmen who besieged Karachi airport.
The assault has left Pakistan’s nascent peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in tatters and officials in the northwest reported that some 25,000 people had fled a restive tribal district in the past 48 hours, fearing a long-awaited ground offensive.
The assault on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport was just the latest spectacular offensive to be launched by the TTP in an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2007.
Authorities were checking reports that seven airport workers were trapped in cold-storage facilities after apparently shutting themselves inside to escape the carnage.
“We are looking into this and according to the families some seven people were trapped inside the cold storage and were in contact with the families on cell phone,” said Abid Qaimkhani, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority.
The attack began just before midnight Sunday. Some of the gunmen were dressed in army uniform, as authorities put their mangled bodies, assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers on show for the press. At least three detonated their suicide vests, witnesses said, and one severed head formed part of the grisly display.
“The main objective of the terrorists was to destroy the aircraft on the ground but there was only minor damage to two to three aircraft,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference at the airport late Monday. “Pakistan’s national assets are safe and secure.”
The administration in Washington condemned the attack and offered to assist with the investigation. UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the airport siege and a separate attack in the southwest targeting Shiite Muslims which a local official said killed at least 24 pilgrims.
Ban was “deeply concerned by this upsurge of violence across Pakistan” and urged the government to increase its efforts to address terrorism and religious extremism, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
The bodies of the 18 victims - including 11 airport security guards and four workers from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) - were taken to a Karachi hospital where another 26 wounded people were being treated, a hospital official said.
The charred remains of two cargo terminal employees were later recovered on Monday night, to bring the total dead to 30, Qaimkhani said.
PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said no airline passengers were caught up in the incident.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office issued a statement “commending the bravery” of security forces and saying normal flight operations would resume in the afternoon, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai - who is battling his own Taliban insurgency - condemned the attack in a statement.
The attack took place just three kilometres (two miles) from the Mehran naval base, which the Taliban laid siege to three years ago, destroying two US-made Orion aircraft and killing 10 personnel in a 17-hour operation.
The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan’s military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages.
The TTP said the brazen attack on the airport was its latest revenge for the killing of its leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in November. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the government had used peace talks as a ruse, and promised more attacks to come in retaliation against recent air strikes in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Talks to end the TTP’s bloody seven-year insurgency have been under way since February, after Sharif returned to power last year, but little clear progress has resulted and more than 300 people have been killed in militant strikes since then. Analysts say Sharif is under pressure to act and risks angering the army if he does not authorise a swift retaliation.
Thousands flee tribal district
In restive North Waziristan tribal district some 1,000 kilometres north of Karachi, residents and officials told AFP 58,000 people, mainly women and children had fled the area for different parts of the northwest, fearing a long-awaited offensive was imminent.
The exodus has increased rapidly in recent days, with more than 25,000 fleeing their homes in the last 48 hours alone, a government official in Peshawar said.
“I am taking my family to a safer location,” said one resident who did not wish to be named.
The latest rumours of an operation began after government talks with the TTP broke down in April, and were further stoked by the air strikes and the widespread distribution of a leaflet from a local warlord last week warning residents they should leave their homes by June 10. An offensive in North Waziristan has been rumoured for years but analysts remain cautious about whether the military has the capacity to attempt such a move without assistance from the Afghan side of the border where militants are likely to flee in the event of an attack.
What do we think?
Well, this new survey revealing that 92% of Pakistanis report having seen hate speech online is sobering indeed. We cannot imagine it is much different elsewhere. It may well be that we are crucially under-estimating the role of hate speech online in creating real-world violence.
Whether it is three dead in a shopping mall, thirty dead in Pakistan, or tens of thousands maimed, made homeless, or killed in conflicts all over the world, it is surely the power of words to justify the unthinkable that should concern us.
A challenging question that demands an answer.
Whatever the root causes of societal tensions, and the world is full of injustice, to be sure, both minor and major, the casualacceptance that “violence is the answer” is a cancer that grew up in the relativist 1960s and has been growing and spreading ever since.
It must be said that the instinctive resort to violence is, unquestionably, exacerbated by the wanton use of government force, official and unofficial, whether it is foolhardy killings of people by gung-ho police officers, (a trend which seems to be increasing), the assassination of leaders such as Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, drone strikes, dis-proportionate attacks on the Palestinian community by the IDF, the fuelling of the contras and others slaughtering hundreds of thousands in Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s, the massacres of Chechen civilians, the slaughter of Tamil civilians, and so many more examples the list could be virtually endless.
We are concerned here with the knee-jerk resort to violence, with the assumption that such violence is warranted in all cases by national interest, rather than the admittedly more complex discussion of when and if violence could be justified. Governments everywhere seem, to our eyes, to be becoming far too wedded to the idea of “shoot first and ask questions later”, both domestically and internationally. It is a slippery slope, and we seem to be sliding down it, willy nilly.
And while government continues to behave as if life and liberty are irrelevant to their own interests, so individuals will consider they are similarly exempt from moral restraint, as we saw with Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades.
Hate speech does not equal free speech. In our opinion.
And yet, none of us are exempt from moral restraint. When we all cry, in bewilderment, “How could someone do such a thing?” it is because we are from the sane majority, those who would no more shoot a fellow citizen on the streets over a political or religious principle than we would try to fly to the moon by flapping our arms.
And yet, that same sane majority cowers silently behind the free speech argument while others pour mental filth into our communities unchallenged and unrestrained.
In our view, it is not enough to outlaw someone actively arguing and presumably planning for armed revolution, it is also necessary to curb the enthusiasm of those who “wink” at the concept of it, who pat elements on society on the head and murmur “There, there, settle down children”, when they should actually be as outraged as us that anyone can actually voice the type of vile propaganda that leads individuals to gun down women’s health practitioners, attendees at a Holocaust museum, or a Jewish school.
We do not pretend to know where or how the line should be drawn in each and every case. We simply feel we know hate speech when we hear it, and we don’t want to hear it. So as a starting point for the debate:
Killing people is wrong. Always wrong. Under any circumstances. It is an inadequate, tragic and awful way for us to resolve our differences, whether with a neighbour over a wall or a neighbouring country over a border.
Killing people is just plain wrong. And saying it’s sometimes OK to kill people is wrong, too.
Let’s just start there, and work on?