When hate speech leads to violence

The Fisher King is a 1991 film starring the late Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges  in which the latter plays a shock jock radio host who spurs a caller into massacring people at random at a restaurant in which the former’s wife dies.  The character played by Williams loses his sanity and becomes a street person who, in an interesting twist, rescues the character played by Bridges from a bunch of thugs who are bent on killing him.

The words used by Bridges in the film that put the caller, named Edwin, over the edge to commit an act of random violence, are worth repeating here:

“You are not their kind Edwin…They’re not human. They’re evil, Edwin.”

We are living something very similar to The Fisher King today in a world where sides – religious, political and ideological – are not only getting further apart but the language being thrown around to define the ‘other’ is becoming increasingly intolerant and hateful.  Yes, I know that language has been employed for centuries to denigrate people of other faiths, ethnicities and skin colours, but the atmosphere created now is worrisome for reasons I will return to soon.

Ideologues have called people insects, vermin, subhuman, Untermensch, and rats for a very long time.  Radio broadcasts in Rwanda in 1994 in which the Tutsis were called cockroaches contributed to the slaughter of 800,000 people.  Nazi Germany infamously labeled many of its citizens – Jews, Roma, the disabled – unworthy of living and we all know where that led to.  Islamic State terrorists routinely reduce their enemies to ugly caricatures and submit them to unspeakable deaths such as beheadings, immolations and pitching them off roofs.

No one has a monopoly on hatred.  Much has been written about the far right in the US and yes it is responsible for some reprehensible speech (some of the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook mass shooting have been receiving death threats from those who follow morons like Alex Jones who maintains the whole tragedy was staged).  But the far left is no angel either.  CNN reporter Kathy Griffin was fired after showing a photo of her holding a severed head of US President Donald Trump.

We are entering a dangerous stage in world politics.  There is so much hatred that is spread so easily via social media. Studies have shown that a lot of folks surround themselves with news and pundits that re-affirm their views and never venture out of their bubbles to hear other voices.  After all, it is far easier to listen to what you like than what you dislike.

Whether or not all this hate leads to violence is controversial.  We  may never know what led James Thomas Hodgkinson to shoot at Republicans practicing baseball yesterday in Alexandria, Virginia.  Or what drove Edgar Maddison Welch to fire shots inside a Comet Ping Pong restaurant that was allegedly the site of a Democratic Party child sex ring according to conspiracy theorists. Or whether Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik (who, by the way changed his name recently to Fjotolf Hansen) was inspired by far-right celebrities like Ann Coulter and Robert Spencer – although he does cite their work in his 1,500 page Manifesto.  It may all be a series of coincidences.  I have maintained for more than 15 years that you cannot predict who becomes a terrorist and I am not going to start pretending I can now.

And yet there is something very, very treacherous in allowing increasingly vile forms of hate to spread.  Before the jealous guardians of the US First Amendment jump all over me – again – I am NOT advocating the removal of freedom of speech.  I realise that for some once you start it is hard to stop and that totalitarian states have used such weapons against their own citizens in the past.

But surely we as a species, as rational animals, must agree that some speech goes too far and must be sanctioned.  Words that clearly advocate violence are not ok.  It is not ok to yell ‘hang the bitch’ (a reference to Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton) at a Donald Trump rally – to me that is a call to violence.  It is not ok to call for the violent removal of President Trump, no matter how much you don’t like him.  It is not ok to call for the death of the kuffar and hide behind ‘it’s only talk’.

It is up to us to put our heads together and figure this out.  We can default to ‘freedom of speech’ if we want.  And as a result of some free speech people will die.  It is our choice.

PS for those who maintain – incredibly I might add – that Sandy Hook did not happen let me share something with you.  I attended a presentation a few years ago in which the Chief of Police of that small Connecticut town walked us through what happened that day and how his members needed help to deal with the sight of so many small innocent victims.   Too bad those of you who live in a universe where a fake Sandy Hook makes sense weren’t there.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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