Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When Words Can Kill

"Will no one rid me of the turbulent priest?"

-- King Henry II's casual reference to Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, following which four devoted knights were inspired to go to Canterbury, where they found and murdered Beckett, December 29, 1170

"Like the extreme right in Israel, many Republicans conveniently ignore the fact that words can kill. . . . [T]hey could use a short session with Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, who was inspired by the rabid rhetoric hurled at the Isrraeli prime minister . . .."

-- Chemi Shalev, Israel's Haaretz newspaper columnist, quoted in Thomas Friedman, "Trump's Wink Wink to 'Second Amendment People,'" New York Times, August 10, 2016, p. A19

"If she [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don't know."

-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Wilmington, North Carolina, August 9, 2016

This morning [August 10] the Times editorialized: "Three months from the presidential election . . . Americans find themselves asking whether Donald Trump has called for the assassination of Hillary Clinton. . . . His supporters have shouted 'kill her' . . . A New Hampshire delegate [said she should] 'be put in the firing line and shot for treason.'" Editorial, "Further Into the Muck With Mr. Trump," New York Times, August 10, 2016, p. A18. And see, Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman, "Donald Trump Suggests 'Second Amendment People' Could Act Against Hillary Clinton," New York Times, August 10, 2016, p. A1.

Trump's opponents argue that Trump's remark -- "nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don't know" -- was his intentional call for the assassination of Hillary Clinton.

His defenders say that's ridiculous; he was just saying that the Second Amendment supporters have proven to be well organized and politically effective, and that they might be able to bring enough political pressure to prevent a President Hillary Clinton from successfully nominating liberal judges.

In my view, both sides miss the point.

No one can know if, or what, Trump (or anyone else) is thinking when they speak. With Trump's often rambling and disjointed exposition it's often difficult to figure out what he has said after he has said it. And it is even more perilous to speculate about another's motive.

So the argument between those who believe Trump was advocating assassination of his opponent and those who think he was just urging citizen participation in the judicial selection process is one that cannot be, and will not be, resolved.

The point is that, based on what he said, that argument can (and did) take place.

That is to say, what he said was open to the interpretation, an interpretation by many, that he was calling for her to be shot -- an interpretation supported by the context.

Trump's now oft-quoted potential threat was preceded by the line, "Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment." Paul Barrett, "What Trump Gets Wrong About Clinton and the Second Amendment; Hint: everything," Bloomberg, August 10, 2016.

Put aside for the moment the facts that (a) none of the fact checkers who have researched this charge have been able to find a scintilla of evidence that Hillary Clinton has ever hinted of a desire to do away with the Second Amendment -- indeed, quite the opposite. She has said that she supports the Second Amendment. And (b), as the Constitution makes clear, constitutional amendments are not, like executive orders, something the president can simply "abolish" whenever she or he wants to.

In other words, his disjointed appeal -- "Although the Second Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don't know." -- came in the context of an attack on Hillary Clinton (however false its premise) regarding the constitutional amendment most near and dear to the hearts of America's gun owners.

In the past, I have often gone out of my way to defend those who were fired, or otherwise severely punished, for what sometimes seemed to be a single, relatively innocuous remark. See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Was It Something I Said? General Semantics, the Outspoken Seven, and the Unacceptable Remark," Institute for General Semantics presentation, New York City, October 30, 2010.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's remarks in Wilmington, North Carolina, yesterday were seriously dangerous. I would not, and do not, defend them. They forcefully bring into question not only his lack of fitness for office, but that of those other Republicans who continue to urge us to join with them in voting for him -- including Iowa's principal statewide-elected officials: Governor Branstad, and U.S. Senators Grassley and Ernst. Think about it.

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1 comment:

Gary Ellis said...

This post is exactly what is absolutely wrong with politics in America today:

1 - Its nonsense.

2 - Its vicious hyperbole.

3 - It degrades the political discourse even further than it has fallen.

4 - It reveals the lack of actual arguments against the candidate.

It really is a weird form of self-aggrandizement.