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Non-Random Acts of Violence

Death threats for American bureaucratic tyrants?

By Hobbes  |  May 19, 2016

The Drudge Report recently showcased its awesome power with a top-of-page link to a fascinating article:

In October 2014, then-Federal Election Commission Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel did what she often does: speak her mind about political campaign issues.

“A re-examination of the Commission’s approach to the Internet and other emerging technologies is long overdue,” Ravel, a Democrat, wrote in lamenting a deadlocked commission vote over whether an Ohio-based business group must include disclaimers on political ads it posted for free on

But Ravel’s statement—just finding it on the FEC’s website is no small feat—didn’t disappear into the Internet’s bowels as bureaucratic missives often do.

Instead, in a sign of how toxic American politics have become, it spawned unbridled ugliness, including death threats that have drawn the attention of law enforcement. What appears to have initially prompted the torrent of messages targeting Ravel: an Oct. 25, 2014, banner headline on the Drudge Report: “DEMS ON FEC MOVE TO REGULATE DRUDGE.”

“Die, fascist, die!” one anonymous person wrote to Ravel in an email reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.

“Hope you have a heart attack,” read another email.

“Go fall down about ten flights of stairs,” yet another person wrote.

As generally peaceable, civilized, and urbane human beings, we abhor violence, and don't much approve of threats.  American politics has mostly been free of the regular, systemic violence that plagues politics in many other countries around the world, although one could argue our Civil War killed a lot more people than a hundred years' worth of election killings.

Which presents us with an interesting contradiction: Most of the time, the politics of America - and of England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, our Anglo-Saxon brethren - are peaceable and polite.  Every now and again, though, they explode into a violent, riotous civil war, as in the United States and England, or serious unrest, as happens in Quebec from time to time.

Thomas Jefferson famously said "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  Is it possible that our faltering liberty tree is coming due for another infusion?

Because, objectively, the arguments (though not, yet, the actions) of Ms. Ravel are indeed tyrannical.  What could be more fundamentally American than free speech on the public Internet, open to all equally?  What possible justification could there be for any kind of governmental regulation of media outlets?

Yes, there are an awful lot of total lies and fraud out there on the Internet.  But the mainstream media is chock full of lies too, and as for the words of elected politicians, well, they don't even bear thinking about.

Justice Louis Brandeis had some wise observations on the fundamental importance of free speech regardless of its accuracy:

Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

As the learned Justice pointed out, there are times of danger where reckless speech can legitimately be suppressed, the classic example being falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  Nothing on the Internet qualifies; even direct calls for violence via Twitter can be prosecuted as incitement of violence, and the recipients as well if they act on them.  Nobody not already inclined to break the law will respond to a rabble-rousing tweet with dangerous actions.

What would be the consequences of government regulation of media outlets?  We don't have to look far: our current administration has a track record of using every tool in its arsenal to try to kneecap political opposition, including imprisonment.  How could any regulation of Internet publications, on any grounds whatsoever, not hamper free speech?

Our Founders would certainly consider such a threat to justify a violent response, which is in fact exactly what they themselves did in answer to similar provocations.  Yet, something within ourselves recoils at the thought of endorsing some... patriot?  citizen?  traitor?  criminal? ...going out and giving Ms. Ravel the redcoat treatment, or even the classic tar and feathers.  We just can't endorse violence in response to politics, at least not yet.

But as long as our politics continue to degrade our freedoms, and our leaders continue to be utterly unresponsive to the anger of the common people, we are building up pressure that can't help but explode in violence sooner or later - which is why so  many citizens are acquiring the means to generate violence as needed.  Ms. Ravel needs to think very carefully indeed about what she's playing at.