Cohen: Reckless Speech Has Terrible Human Cost

Posted January 10, 2011 at 7:10pm

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was the target of a gunman who shot 20 people, killing 6, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, and critically injuring Giffords and many others in Tucson, Ariz. While the shooter’s motives for targeting the Arizona Democrat are not known, initial information reveals that the 22-year-old suspect deeply distrusted his government.

For some time, I have been troubled by the hateful and often patently untrue words that enter the American mind via the Internet, talk radio and even mainstream media and the effect that they have on our society at large and on the fringe element particularly.

Last fall, I was the victim of “gotcha” pseudo-journalism when I agreed to an interview at the request of a friend. I did not know the interviewer would be former pro wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura nor the name of the program — “Conspiracy Theory” — which is aired on the ironically named truTV, owned by Turner Broadcasting System and Time Warner.

Despite numerous attempts to see the footage before its broadcast, as I was promised, I was not allowed to see the episode, “The Police State Conspiracy,” before it aired Nov. 12.

The program focused on H.R. 645, legislation that never even had a hearing in subcommittee, which sought to establish emergency operations centers to share information and provide assistance in cases of emergencies and natural disasters, a need highlighted by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Ventura’s claim that H.R. 645 has already created concentration camps across the country run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is a lie. The “camps” that he visits in the program are in reality an Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Texas and a low-security federal prison in California.

Ventura also insinuates that coffin liners are being mass produced and stockpiled for FEMA concentration camps across the country and that the federal government is preparing to start a pandemic as an impetus for martial law. He uses images of the Nazi Holocaust to incite fear and, at the end of the program, Ventura states, “We’ve already allowed our elected officials to break all kinds
of laws designed to protect you and me,” implying that I and my colleagues
in Congress are purposefully and illegally working against the people we represent.

Outrageous claims and outright lies designed to increase ratings and generate revenue by instilling fear and distrust of government could incite those who believe them to act violently. Even more disturbing is that the reckless dissemination of inflammatory misinformation is not limited to hucksters like Ventura. Foul lies have entered the mainstream media, saturated our airwaves and been spewed forth from the mouths of politicians and political leaders whose actions and words would be an abomination to our Founding Fathers.

Last fall, I was so concerned about the incendiary nature of Ventura’s program that I tried to sound an alarm to the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. Ultimately, my opinion piece was published in the online version of Roll Call. The danger was real then, and it is real now.

The tragic events in Tucson are not the first time we have seen the awful results of unwarranted distrust of our government. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City because of his consuming hatred and distrust of the government, killing 168 people, including 19 children under age 6. Less than a year ago, a disgruntled citizen flew his plane into an IRS building in Texas.

It is the responsibility of all who have a public platform to speak the truth. Reputable journalists and broadcasters, as well as all elected officials, must rededicate themselves to speaking the truth and exposing lies.

Death panels, government takeover of health care, bald-faced lies about our president’s country of birth or religion — these are the kind of despicable falsehoods that permeate our culture. They serve no purpose other than to incite contempt for our government.

Reckless and hateful speech often has a terrible human cost. If the horrific events in Arizona are not enough to modulate our public discourse, it is likely there will be more violence, more deaths. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima Country, Ariz., summed it up best as he has repeatedly mentioned the effect of the vitriol spewed by many on talk radio and some on television: “It may be freedom of speech, but it has consequences.”

Rep. Steve Cohen is a Democrat who represents Tennessee’s 9th district.