The bottom line in America is you are free to hate

Neil Macdonald on the U.S. debate over political invective. Don't expect anything to change.

Take a moment to consider how awful the past few days must have been for Bill O'Reilly and his fellow Fox News traffickers in righteous anger, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Rush Limbaugh, too, poor soul.

You spend your life trying to speak truth to power, trying to advance the political dialectic — serving the public, really — and what do you get?

Smeared. Victimized, even. A member of Congress is shot by someone of questionable sanity and suddenly you and your cohort in the shock-talk industry are cast as people who helped incite the killer.

As though this "violent political discourse" the liberals are all whining about is somehow your fault.

"Far-left loons spewing hatred," declared O'Reilly last night.

"How DARE the media?" Beck asked. "We are not going to play defence at all. Offence."

Beck read a wounded email he'd received from Sarah Palin, who complained she'd been singled out for "inciting terror and violence" just because she'd once posted an electoral map on the internet identifying the Arizona constituency of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords with a gunsight's crosshairs.

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly at Time magazine's 100 most influential people banquet in 2008. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"At no time," Rush Limbaugh told his massive radio audience, "has anybody who does what I do, or I, EVER called for violence. Have never subtly promoted it. Have never gone anywhere near it."

OK. But in the fog of this verbal war, I didn't hear anyone remind Limbaugh of Bill O'Reilly's crusade against the abortion doctor George Tiller ("Tiller the baby-killer," as O'Reilly used to label him).

Or Limbaugh's assertion that the Democrats are "gang-raping" the country. Or Beck's famous declaration that Barack Obama has a "deep-seated hatred for white people, or white culture."

Not that raising these examples would have mattered. Limbaugh, one suspects, probably regards all those assertions as reasonable and factual.

The Tiller case

The indignant shock-jocks pointed out, again and again, that Giffords's shooter was crazy:

There is no evidence he was swayed by talk-show chatter, or the more extreme elements of the Tea Party, or the even more extreme gun-rights activists who regard armed rebellion as a legitimate response to government.

All that, actually, is true enough.

But let's take another moment to look at the George Tiller case.

Tiller was an abortion provider in Kansas and one of three doctors in the U.S. who provided so-called late-term abortions.

Beginning in 2005, O'Reilly railed regularly about "Tiller the baby-killer." In episode after episode, he called Tiller's Kansas clinic a "death mill" and he informed viewers that Tiller would "murder a baby" for $5,000, no questions asked.

That Tiller had been the target of murderous violence — his clinic was firebombed and he'd been shot repeatedly — mattered not. O'Reilly kept denouncing Tiller as a murderer, despite the fact that members of the radical anti-abortion movement were known to resort to gun violence.

Broadening the attack

When Tiller was acquitted by a jury on several misdemeanor charges laid by Kansas authorities, O'Reilly sugggested it had actually been a murder trial and that there must be "a special place in hell" for the doctor.

He then started going after Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, who had vetoed a bill specifically designed to prosecute Tiller.

When Obama brought Sebelius into his cabinet as his health and human services secretary, O'Reilly declared: "That woman is pro-abortion. She wants the babies done for. She supported Tiller the baby-killer out there. So enough with her."

Tiller was eventually murdered in his Wichita church in May 2009.  O'Reilly immediately disclaimed any responsibility. Quite the opposite. "No backpedalling," he vowed to viewers.

The point here is that Bill O'Reilly went, rhetorically, a great deal further where Tiller and Sebelius were concerned than anyone on the right did on the subject of Gabrielle Giffords.

His accusations of murder and "wanting babies done for" make Sarah Palin's map of vulnerable Democrats look almost pusillanimous.

But this being the U.S., O'Reilly not only remains free of any legal scrutiny, he's still on television every night, fulminating about "pinheads" and "traitors" and all manner of subversion and plots by the far left.

Free to hate

In many democracies, including Canada, ranters like O'Reilly would probably at least be looked at by legal authorities or human rights commissions. So might some of his colleagues.

Walking billboards. A Palin supporter at a Tea Party rally in Boston in April 2010. (Reuters)

That's because most other democracies have anti-incitement or hate speech laws. They don't work very well, and free speech advocates despise them. But they are on the books and they serve as an acknowledgement that words have consequences.

Israel, for example, embarked on a series of hate speech investigations after then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing fanatic in 1995.

Many European nations forbid hateful rhetoric that appears to target certain classes of individuals. So does Canada.

And this week, in the uproar following the shooting of Giffords and the killing of six others, Limbaugh imagined that sort of censorship is on its way to America.

"Don't kid yourself," he told his listeners. "What this is all about is shutting down any and all political opposition and eventually criminalizing it."

Even Rush Limbaugh must know better than that.

This is the U.S. Its Constitution contains a First Amendment that protects free speech.

America has no hate speech laws and it's hard to imagine it ever will.

This country decided a long time ago that no matter how vile the speech, allowing it is better than a system in which bureaucrats or, worse, the police get to decide what people should or shouldn't say.

No one in America, not even the mentally unbalanced, is shielded by government from hateful invective.

In this country, Bill O'Reilly gets to call Kathleen Sebelius pro-murder and left-wingers get to call George W. Bush a war criminal.

Limbaugh gets to call liberals sick and twisted, and they get to call him a Nazi.

The right gets to wave around guns and threaten the government with armed rebellion and fundamental Christians from Topeka, Kansas, get to picket funerals of fallen soldiers, hoisting placards thanking God for their deaths. (Somehow, that church's congregation has managed to link U.S. soldiers dying with America's tolerance of homosexuality.)

Actually, that church's members intend to picket the funeral of the nine-year-old girl killed by the maniac who shot down Gabrielle Giffords.

This country's much criticized discourse is more than uncivil. It's nasty, bigoted, ugly, extreme and full of incitement. And free. For better or worse, it's free.