The horrifying shooting of two police officers in Brooklyn on Saturday has brought out the worst in some people. But it also gives us an opportunity to consider how we talk about the way we talk and whether we might do it in a more enlightening fashion. We regularly argue over not just the substance of issues but the way those issues are being discussed; both liberals and conservatives are convinced that their side presents its arguments in reasonable and logical ways, while the other side is prone to inflammatory, dishonest and demagogic rhetoric. When something like this shooting happens, the accusation that it occurred because of the words someone else spoke is almost inevitable. But it’s also almost always wrong.
Over the weekend, the conclusion from some on the right was immediate: The killing of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos could be laid at the feet of national leaders who have been critical of police practices, including President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The venom directed at de Blasio from police union leaders was particularly vivid. “There’s blood on many hands tonight,” said Patrick Lynch, the head of the New York police union. “Those that incited violence on the street in the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on, it shouldn’t be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts at the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor.” Here’s a tweet from former New York governor George Pataki:
— George E. Pataki (@GovernorPataki) December 21, 2014
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) seemed to want to say that public officials were not responsible for the murders, but yeah, they’re kind of responsible: “the tone they’re setting around the rhetoric regarding the cops incites crazy people, but I blame the shooter.” And then there’s Rudy Giuliani, who was much more explicit: “We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” he said in an appearance on Fox News.
It’s hard to find words to describe what a despicable lie this is. But here’s the truth: Every single time Barack Obama has spoken about these issues, he has stressed that violence of any kind, even when people are protesting over legitimate grievances, is utterly wrong and unacceptable. He makes sure, in all his public statements, to include praise of police officers. If he had ever said anything like “everybody should hate the police,” it would have been rather dramatic, to say the least. But he never said anything even remotely resembling that. For instance, here’s what Obama said after the grand jury’s decision was announced in the Ferguson case:
“I also appeal to the law enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur. Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law. As they do their jobs in the coming days, they need to work with the community, not against the community, to distinguish the handful of people who may use the grand jury’s decision as an excuse for violence – distinguish them from the vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact.”
Wow, that is some horrifying anti-cop rhetoric. And what about de Blasio? Here’s part of the explanation for why some in the NYPD seem to hate him so much:
There have been a number flash points between de Blasio and police, including one earlier this month, when the mayor spoke to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News about his fears for his biracial son.
“It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country,” de Blasio said. “And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cellphone, because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”
I get that police officers might not like to hear that, but is there a single sane human being who can say it’s bad advice to give to a black teenager? Or that anyone could take it as encouragement to commit murder?
It’s perfectly fine to call people out on their rhetoric. Everyone fortunate enough to have a prominent voice in public debate should be accountable for the things he or she says. But when someone tosses off the accusation that an act of violence committed by one deranged person was a consequence of words someone else spoke, he or she should immediately be met with a couple of questions, the most important of which is: What,exactly, are you referring to?
So when Rudy Giuliani accuses Barack Obama of saying “everybody should hate the police,” the response should be, “Mr. Giuliani, can you tell us what quote you’re referring to? When did President Obama actually say ‘everybody should hate the police’?” And when Giuliani has no answer, then he ought to be asked whether he’d like to retract the accusation. When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) says, “it’s really time for our national leaders, the president, it’s time for the mayor of New York, and really for many in the media to stop the cop bashing, to stop this anti-police rhetoric,” he should be asked what exactly the president said that constitutes “cop-bashing.”
To be clear, this isn’t about shutting down anyone’s right to say what they want, even to toss off unsupported accusations. People regularly react to criticism of the things they say with cries of “censorship,” as though the First Amendment not only gives you a right to speak but also removes anyone else’s right to tell you that you’re being a jerk. But if you’re going to say that someone else’s words led to violence, you’d better have a case to make, and that case has to include the specific words that supposedly pushed the violent person over the edge.
Liberals like me certainly spend our fair share of time examining and criticizing the rhetoric of conservative politicians. But when any of us do it, we should follow a simple rule: The more serious the accusation you’re making, the more responsibility you have to support it with clear, specific evidence. If we all followed that rule, we could have a debate about events like this shooting that actually brought some greater understanding.
Or we could just see how angry we could make people, and whether we could use the tragedy to stir up hatred at our political opponents.