Newsday
December 21, 2014 12:10 AM


OPINION

Tone down incendiary rhetoric on police use of force

By CATHY YOUNG

 Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle
Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, speaks during a news conference after the bodies of two fallen NYPD police officers were transported from Woodhull Medical Center on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014

The tragic deaths of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos have changed the tenor of the conversation about police violence.

Many in the law-and-order camp, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, blamed the deaths in part on anti-police "hate speech" in recent protests, a charge police critics vehemently reject. Pinning deadly violence on inflammatory rhetoric isn't new. At other times, conservatives were the ones decrying this tactic as unfair. We should never allow accusations of "incitement" to chill legitimate speech. Yet everyone would benefit from less rhetoric that demonizes fellow Americans.

The "hate speech" blame game was turned against conservatives after the January 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, and 18 others at a constituent meeting in Tucson, Arizona. Many left-of-center commentators rushed to indict the right, particularly tea party activists and Sarah Palin, for enabling this tragedy with incendiary statements that attacked Democrats as enemies of America and urged Americans to rebel against liberal usurpers.

Palin was lambasted for her exhortation to conservatives, "Don't retreat . . . Reload!" and her use of a map targeting Democratic politicians in crosshairs.

MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann pronounced that she should be "dismissed from politics" if she did not disavow such language and imagery after the Tucson shootings.

In fact, the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had no connection to right-wing politics; he was a man with severe psychiatric problems and a bizarre mélange of fringe beliefs from the right and the left. Yet many liberal pundits still argued that right-wing politicians and activists were responsible for a "climate of extremism" in which an unbalanced person could be pushed over the edge by talk of tyranny and revolution.

In the shooting in Brooklyn, the relationship between the protests and the killings is likewise tenuous. The gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who took his own life after shooting the officers, had a long criminal record and, apparently, mental health problems; shortly before the killings, he shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend. He had no known connection to political activism but reportedly belonged to a prison gang that identifies as Islamic.

Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said that there is "blood on many hands" of those who supported the anti-police brutality protests, starting "in the office of the mayor." On a more measured note, conservative pundits such as Commentary magazine columnist Jonathan Tobin rejected the notion that Mayor Bill de Blasio or President Barack Obama favor violence against police -- but also said that sweeping claims of systemic police racism and brutality are likely to provoke such violence.

Tobin is right that the "racist cops" narrative is oversimplified. But complex racial issues in policing exist. While killings by police are rare, less extreme and far more frequent encounters between officers and minority youth may be tinged with racial prejudice. This is a legitimate concern that should not be declared out of bounds.

Unfortunately, valid concerns about abuses of authority, whether by municipal police or by the federal government, escalate too easily into rhetoric that turns such abuses into a blood-soaked tyranny.

Is such rhetoric to blame for the killings? No one knows, and we should not be expected to self-censor because of the way our speech may affect the violent or the unstable. But we should do more to discourage political hate speech -- which can only be done if each side condemns extremism in its own ranks. Let the left disavow hateful rhetoric against police; let the right disavow hateful rhetoric against police critics.