The Dangers of Incitement

Should the truth matter in politics? And should we be concerned about the rancor that characterizes our political discourse? The answer to both is decidedly, yes. But as demonstrated by the recent hate frenzy whipped up by some conservatives in response to Senator Richard Durbin’s comments about the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, we have a long way to go.

I have written before about the attacks on Senator Durbin (June 27, 2005) [1], but there are troubling aspects of this story that require revisiting the matter. Of special concern is the degree to which one of the principal lines of attack used against Durbin was based on fabrication and exaggeration, and was intended primarily to incite anger for partisan political gain.

As delivered by top White House advisor, Karl Rove, to a cheering audience of New York Conservatives, the case was framed as, "Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year? Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals."

Started a week earlier, this "Durbin’s, Al Jazeera, putting our troops in danger" equation has become a Republican mantra. It began on June 19 with former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich saying on Fox News, "Al Jazeera today is running quotes of Senator Durbin…you cannot…have a public official quoted throughout the world by our enemies describing the US in these terms-it puts every young American in uniform at risk."

As the mantra was repeated, it grew. For Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly it became, "Al Jazeera…couldn’t get enough of Durbin. For days his opinion echoed through the Arab World enflaming ever more hatred toward the USA." And in a column written by a Republican congressional leader, the story became, "[Durbin’s] statement on the floor of the Senate rippled throughout America and transcended borders. In fact, within hours Al Jazeera was spreading these harmful and dangerous statements throughout the Arab World." Upon examination, an interesting fact emerges. Al Jazeera news network apparently never carried the original Durbin speech. It most certainly did not re-run it in "hourly," or as one former congressman noted, "repeated every fifteen minutes." What Gingrich saw was a wire service story carried on the Al Jazeera English language website two days after Durbin’s speech. The subject of that story was the White House demand that Durbin apologize for his comments. This was the only story carried on the site.

In this regard it may well be said that the only true part of Karl Rove’s comments was the opening question, "Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year?" What was revealed however, was the degree to which exaggeration and fabrication were used to inflame passions and silence critics of Administration policy.

To this I can add a personal note. Toward the end of this sordid affair, Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio host, decided to get into the game by offering some "red meat" to his own angry followers. On June 29, he quoted from my June 27 article, in which I defended Senator Durbin, specifically citing (twice for emphasis) that it appeared on the "Al" website. In fact,, the site where my column is actually featured, is a US-based website having no relationship to the Arabic TV network. But of course that didn’t matter to Rush or his fans. The mere mention alone was enough to prompt a flood of hate-filled emails to my office. I was told to "go back where you come from." I was called a "terrorist puppet" and repeatedly accused of treason or "traitorous behavior." One writer actually wanted me to be convicted and sent to Guantanamo. And, of course, there were those who wanted me to die.

All of which is standard fare for incitement.

We are living in dangerous times. Durbin’s criticism of US behavior did not add to the danger. Neither did those who questioned the words he used (for which he apologized), or those who, on behalf of the Administration, took issue with the substance of the Senator’s speech. All of that can be the subject of civil discourse. But those who sought to exploit the entire situation by inflaming and inciting are in a different category. By their behavior they have added to the already poisoned well that has made reasoned and honest political discourse so difficult. It is they who have contributed to the danger.