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Hate speech and the mainstreaming of extremism

The First Amendment protects the media or web messenger, but the message can have murderous consequences.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 2009


Violent suggestion posed as commentary has long been part of the tactic known as "leaderless resistance" popularized by Ku Klux Klan leader Lewis Beam in the early 1990s and co-opted by groups ranging from the Aryan Nations to the Earth Liberation Front.

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Since there's no direct incitement, the First Amendment protects the messenger. That the message is a suggestion, however, is often clear for anyone to see.

Such strategies have for a long time concerned those who study the politics of extremism in America.

But in the wake of several high-profile and deadly attacks by anti-abortion, anti-government, and anti-Jewish extremists in recent weeks and months, the focus of the debate is shifting from the darker corners of the Internet and shortwave radio to the halls of some of the country's most successful and popular media networks and web sites.

A new factor that is "causing us even more concern than in the past is the mainstreaming of the extremism by people who should know better," said James McElroy of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a speech given before a string of deadly, politically-motivated attacks this year, including the alleged shooting of a Holocaust Memorial Museum guard by white separatist James von Brunn on Wednesday.

Critics point to popular mainstream cable figures like Lou Dobbs on CNN, who once falsely claimed that illegal Mexican immigrants are spreading leprosy in the US, and Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly, who repeatedly referred to "Tiller the Baby Killer" when talking about Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, who was gunned down two weeks ago in his church.

Commentators say they are simply offering analysis based on facts. And the demagoguery flows both ways on the political airwaves, with constructive debate being replaced on both the left and the right with venom and invective.