When Hate Speech Justifies Killing

By Jim Wallis 6-11-2009

Words have consequences. In the past few weeks, we have seen just how dire those consequences can be. On Sunday, May 31st, Scott Roeder entered Reformation Lutheran Church of Wichita in Kansas and shot Dr. George Tiller point blank in the head. Yesterday, Stephen T. Johns, a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum opened the door for 88 year old James W. von Brunn. Von Brunn, a white supremacist who ran a Web site to promote his hatred of Blacks and Jews, proceeded to take several steps into the museum when he opened fire with a rifle and killed Officer Johns before he was gunned down by two other security guards.

These two killings, so close together, raise some troubling questions: When does civil disagreement become uncivil discourse? When does that uncivil discourse become hate speech? And when does that hate speech become the framework of justification for people like Scott Roeder and James W. von Brunn to kill?

Those who become suicide bombers, assassinate judges, kill doctors, or open fire on security guards all have a framework of justification in their minds of why what they are doing is not only necessary, but also the right thing to do. Hate speech, whether it is found on fringe Web sites or spouted by radio talk show hosts or cable TV commentators builds an edifice of hatred in the minds of extreme or unsound individuals that leads to their actions.

As Americans, we all cherish our First Amendment Right to the freedom of speech, even if that means we have to hear or allow the expression of views and opinions that horrify us and even the vast majority of people. Government censorship and the abridgment of these rights is not the answer to hate speech. Societal censorship, public outcry, and condemnation of these words is what's necessary.

I am not normally for the old practice of "shunning," the practice of deliberately and habitually avoiding association with a group or individual. But these recent events make me think it is time we consider shunning those who propagate the hate speech that provides the framework of justification for these heinous acts. It is time to publically walk away from those who are committing these kinds of social sins and encourage others to do the same.

Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners.

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