Thursday, September 2, 2010

Guilty All Around

Over on Slate today, William Saletan over-argues that a national backlash against Islam is brewing due to so many politicians piling onto the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy.

Rachael Larimore, perhaps the token conservative of the XX team, poses the following question: "So, if the people complaining about the mosque are inciting isolated acts of violence, does that mean Al Gore is responsible for the gunman [at] the Discovery Channel?" It's a common question - one that we often find people asking after accusations or insinuations of incitement. The obvious answer is supposed to be "no," at which point the rebuttal comes back, "Well, if so-and-so isn't responsible for violent act X, how can my guy be responsible for violent act Y?" The idea is simple, looking for a means of getting your person off the hook by threatening to not go down alone. But let's turn that logic on its head for a moment.

Let's say the answer to Ms. Larimore's question is, "Yes. Al Gore IS responsible for James Lee taking people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters." Now, I suspect that in order to say that, we'll have to make a couple of assumptions, so let's go ahead and make them, even though we know that they're false (given that I'm making them up right now). The first is that sometime in his public speeches on the environment, Mr. Gore said something that could be reasonably construed as advocating violence as a means of achieving the end of environmental protection. The second is that he intended, or at least knew, that someone would take him up on that. (I'm dropping the "should have known" language that normally goes along with such things because I find it too vague to be useful.)

Okay. Where does that leave us? With Al Gore possibly having committed a crime. Given our assumptions above, if they could be proven, it's unlikely that the former vice president could make a valid First Amendment case. (Take this with a large lick of salt. I'm not, after all, a constitutional lawyer.) So, having (spuriously) established all of this, let's go back to the question that Ms. Larimore poses and pick up the train of logic. Now, her question is basically in response to Mr. Saletan's conclusion that recent violence that we're seeing against Muslims and suspected (or, more accurately, misidentified) "Muslims" in the United States can be traced back, at least indirectly, to all of the rather public calls from political figures to put an end to the Cordoba House project in New York, and the general hostility to Islam that appears to be a part of such calls.

So now we have multiple instances of political figures, from the left and the right, using the bully pulpit in ways that have lead to people being injured and killed. The correct answer is to throw the book at all of them, but the fact that no-one fingered Al Gore doesn't mean that people now should receive a pass. After all, we understand that there are people in the world, who have done very bad things and were never punished for them. But you're very unlikely to find a jury that would let someone go based on the idea that as long as other people remain unpunished, they should, too.

In other words we're back to that old saying that our parents drilled into our heads in grade school: Two wrongs don't make a right.


JohnMcG said...

I don't think the argument is that two wrongs make a right; it's that no wrongs were committed.

The point of it is that the idea that the Discovery gunman at all reflects the attitudes of the mainstream environmental movement enjoys absolutlely no currency. I doubt National Review would publish a straightforward essay arguing that environmental groups should curtail their activities in light of this event. It's an idea they won't even consider, as evidenced by the leaps in logic you were required to take to even entertain the possibility that Al Gore bears some responsibility.

The same is not true the other way. There are lots of chin-stroking pieces (e.g. Saletan's) reflecting on what the anti-Muslim violence says about modern conservatism. The same was true of the murder of Dr. Tiller by a lone gunman. Left-wing violence is anomoalous behavior of crazed lunatics. Right-wing violence offers a glimpse at the darkness that resides in the heart of conservatism.

I normally deplore "hypocrisy!" arguments, but I think this is an exception. When one wishes to engage in guilt-by-association in holding a mainstream group responsible for the activities of its fringes, it's worth asking whether they are willing to be consistent in upholding that standard.

The Discovery gunman shouldn't stop Al Gore from saying what he believes.

Aaron said...

You're absolutely right. But I wanted to the do the thought experiment of presuming that there HAD been a wrong, and see where it lead me.

You're right about hypocrisy and guilt-by-association arguments. But I think sometimes that people tend to behave as though hypocrisy justifies hypocrisy. Both sides tend to attribute violence to their own fringes but to their opponent's core, using the fact that the other side does so as justification, resulting in circular, self-justifying and ultimately co-dependent logic.

JohnMcG said...

Interesting column by Ross Douthat on this topic -- -- focusing on craziness of extremists is a useful distraction from performance of elites.

Aaron said...

Thanks for that, John. It was interesting reading (and spot-on to boot).