Sarah Palin’s Irresponsible Rhetoric

Following the vote on health care, Sarah Palin put 20 congressmen in gun sights on her Facebook page. And she followed that up with “Don’t Retreat, Instead RELOAD!” She is unapologetic. According to Palin, violent language is just a fact of American life, part and parcel of our sports talk. Just how should we take that?

Students of group behavior tell us that groups are influenced by the crowd, by the rhetoric and behavior of those around them. Could a political leader push a peace loving citizen all the way to violence? Probably not. You have to be somewhat predisposed. But if people are reacting angrily already, the likelihood that some people will overreact gets larger.

Sarah Palin’s gesture also mimics some of the websites that displayed the faces of abortion doctors, and showed faces crossed out when they were murdered. The Courts of Appeals found some of those pages were threats and could be enjoined by the courts. In the abortion context, doctors were murdered.

And in the past weeks, violence has been directed against some of the members of congress on her list. So far no person has been injured; the violence has been directed against property. Perhaps that’s where it will stop.

But on Friday, March 19, Mike Vanderboegh blogged “To all modern Sons of Liberty: THIS is your time. Break their windows. Break them NOW.” And he added:

if we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat party headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary.

As suggested by Vanderboegh’s blog, there are in fact lots of groups training to take on the U.S. Army in order to defend their definition of freedom from the rest of us. The FBI and several private organizations are tracking these groups because the danger they pose is real. People like that are armed. They have killed government workers trying to do their jobs. One of the people in that violent world blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. We have our own home grown terrorists.

So what is Palin really up to? Is she so stupid that she doesn’t know this isn’t football? That there are people willing to commit murder and mayhem? That suggesting that people reload, and pointing them at targets through gun sights, is incendiary?

Generally in the law we hold that people intend and are responsible for the natural and probable consequences of their actions. The law gives people somewhat more leeway in the context of speech. But we as citizens are entitled to treat that kind of incitement as disloyal and disgusting. When politicians or anyone else suggests violence against people for their politics, it is entirely appropriate to question, nay deny, that they are loyal Americans. Loyal Americans understand that sometimes governments make decisions with which we as individuals disagree. That is the price of living in a free country, of living in America; indeed, it is the price of civilization. So my response to Palin: grow up or get out.


Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He is also President of the Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and served in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 7, 2010.


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