On April 15, 1995, Timothy McVeigh destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
A little over a week later, President Bill Clinton delivered a speech in which he defended the First Amendment while raising concerns about the impact of violent and hateful rhetoric:
[W]e hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. You ought to see—I’m sure you are now seeing the reports of some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today.
Well, people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences and that freedom has endured in this country for more than two centuries because it was coupled with an enormous sense of responsibility on the part of the American people.
If we are to have freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, and, yes, the freedom to bear arms, we must have responsibility as well. And to those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia, I remind you that we have freedom of speech, too. And we have responsibilities, too. And some of us have not discharged our responsibilities. It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior.
If they insist on being irresponsible with our common liberties, then we must be all the more responsible with our liberties. When they talk of hatred, we must stand against them. When they talk of violence, we must stand against them. When they say things that are irresponsible, that may have egregious consequences, we must call them on it. The exercise of their freedom of speech makes our silence all the more unforgivable. So exercise yours, my fellow Americans. Our country, our future, our way of life is at stake.
For this, Clinton was pilloried by the Right, which prompted People For the American Way to release a memo [PDF] on “free speech, irresponsible speech, and the climate of intolerance” which, remarkably, we could probably release today after making only a few small changes:
Language that attributes heinous motives and goals to individuals and organizations — such as accusations that liberals are out to destroy Christianity or that advocates for civil rights for gays and lesbians want to molest young children — destroys any recognition of common interest and any hope of finding common ground among political opponents. That is a terribly dangerous situation in a democratic society.
It is tempting to reassure ourselves by saying that hate speech is the denizen of only the furthest fringes of American political life. Unfortunately, that assertion is clearly not true. Elected officials and highly visible political leaders are among those who spread messages of fear and suspicion, over and over, day in and day out. The repetition of such messages cannot contribute to the well-being of our communities or the health of our society at large. Regardless of whether such messages “cause” violent behavior, they clearly serve to legitimize those who do violate the law.
Pat Robertson is a former Presidential candidate, the patriarch of a political movement, a television broadcaster, and an author. His television show and his books reach millions of Americans. Unfortunately, the message he preaches is often this: Christians are under attack in America by liberals and by a government that wants desperately to destroy their faith and their families. “I do believe this year that there’s going to be persecutions against Christians. I think the government is going to step up its attacks against Christians,” he told television viewers last year. “The government frankly is our enemy and we’re going to see more and more of the people who have been places in office last year … getting control of the levers of power and they will begin to know how to use them to hurt those who are perceived as their enemies.”
Last year, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission proposed regulations — originating with the Bush administration — to protect American workers against religious bigotry and harassment on the job, Religious Right political groups portrayed the effort in apocalyptic terms, telling members that the Clinton Administration was so hostile to the Christian faith that the government was planning to make it illegal to wear cross-shaped jewelry, carry a Bible to work, or talk about religion with a co-worker. “Why is the Clinton Administration doing this?” asked Jerry Falwell. “Because they do not want God in American society.” It was all patently untrue, and the EEOC offered to clarify that the regulations were designed to protect, not inhibit, workers’ religious liberty. Nevertheless, the regulations were killed.
The war against the EEOC regulations was an ideal operation for political organizations willing to trade short-term gain for long-term damage to American society. By claiming (falsely) that the end of religious liberty was near, groups could motivate supporters to call and write elected officials. By refusing to acknowledge government officials’ willingness to cooperate toward reaching a solution, and demanding instead withdrawal of the regulations, the organizations’ leaders could flex their political muscle for members of Congress and brag to their own members that they had prevented the arrival of tyranny. Meanwhile, millions of Americans were convinced that the government was out to destroy their faith and freedom.
Some of the most incendiary invective is directed against gay and lesbian Americans and their allies in the effort to win legal protection from discrimination. Gays and lesbians are routinely portrayed – by individuals at or near the center of conservative politics in America – as evil individuals who prey on children and want to destroy the institutions of church and family. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has parroted the assertion of the Traditional Values Coalition’s Lou Sheldon that teaching about homosexuality in public schools amounts to an effort to “recruit” teenagers into homosexuality. Gingrich has promised Sheldon that the House will hold hearings on the gay “influences” in the schools. Last year Sheldon told his supporters that “President Bill Clinton has quietly put into place homosexual special rights regulations that will devastate our freedom of religion, speech and association, not to mention destroy our society’s cultural and moral fiber. AND ALL THIS IS BEING DONE BEHIND OUR BACK.”
Randall Terry, one of the founders of Operation Rescue, has told followers, “I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good. … We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this county. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.”
When President Clinton, unequivocally declaring his support for unbridled freedom of speech, called for Americans to respond to hateful rhetoric, his political opponents were quick to twist his words. Pat Robertson told viewers that the President and “those on the left” wanted to use the tragic Oklahoma City bombing “to still the voices of legitimate protest.” Oliver North, Rush Limbaugh and others leapt at the chance to glean short-term political gain. When the President in fact called for more speech and more American voices, he was accused of trying to silence voices of dissent. That is precisely the kind of untruth that feeds the current dangerous levels of cynicism and distrust toward the government. And it is ironic to see politically powerful individuals, with powerful voices, claiming the role of victim in order to breed fear and resentment among their supporters.