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Far Right Thugs Go Mainstream

The recent 'payback' tactics of right-wing bloggers listing the names and addresses of 'leftist' enemies could mark the beginning of incivil politics.
 
 
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As is true for many lawyers who have defended First Amendment free speech rights, I have represented several groups and individuals with extremist and even despicable viewpoints (in general, and for obvious reasons, it is only groups and individuals who espouse ideas considered repugnant by the majority which have their free speech rights threatened). Included among this group were several White Supremacist groups and their leaders, including one such group -- the World Church of the Creator -- whose individual members had periodically engaged in violence against those whom they considered to be the enemy (comprised of racial and religious minorities along with the "race traitors" who were perceived to defend them).

One of the favorite tactics used by such groups is to find the home address and telephone number of the latest enemy and then publish it on the Internet, accompanied by impassioned condemnations of that person as a Grave Enemy, a race traitor, someone who threatens all that is good in the world. A handful of the most extremist pro-life groups have used the same tactic. It has happened in the past that those who were the target of these sorts of demonization campaigns that included publication of their home address were attacked and even killed.

But these intimidation tactics work even when nothing happens. Indeed, these groups often publish the enemy's home address along with some cursory caveat that they are not encouraging violence. The real objective is the same one shared by all terrorists -- to place the person in paralyzing fear. The goal is to force the individual, as they lay in bed at night, to be preoccupied with worry that there is some deranged individual who read one of the websites identifying them as the enemy and which provided their address and who believes that they can strike some blow for their Just Cause by visiting their home and harming or killing them. The fear that they are vulnerable in their own home lurks so prominently and relentlessly in a person's mind that it can be as effective as a physical attack in punishing someone or intimidating them.

This thuggish tactic of intimidation -- publicly railing against someone's grave crimes and then publishing their home address -- has been creeping out of the most extremist precincts on the Right and is becoming increasingly common among mainstream right-wing individuals and organizations.

This weekend, prominent neoconservative David Horowitz proclaimed that the United States is fighting a war and " the aggressors in this war are Democrats, liberals and leftists." In particular, he cited the now infamous NYT Travel section article on Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld's vacation homes as evidence that the employees of the NYT are among the enemies in this war, and he then linked to and recommended as a "proposal for action" this post from his associate, Front Page contributor Rocco DiPippo. The post which Horowitz recommended was entitled "Where Does Punch Sulzberger Live?" and this is what it said:

I issue a call to the blogosphere to begin finding and publicly listing the addresses of all New York Times reporters and editors. Posting pictures of their residences, along with details of any security measures in place to protect the properties and their owners (such as location of security cameras and on-site security details) should also be published.

DiPippo published the home address of NYT Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, along with directions to his home, and linked to a post by right-wing blogger Dan Riehl which contained directions to Sulzberger's home along with photographers of it. In a now-deleted post, DiPippo also published the home address of Linda Spillers, the NYT photographer who took the photograph of Don Rumsfeld's vacation home (with Rumsfeld's express permission), and he urged everyone to go (presumably to the home address he provided) and confront Spillers about her actions.

That was not an isolated incident. This week, Bartholomew's Official Notes on Religion reported on the new "project" implemented by the group StopTheACLU.org. As that group describes it, the project is called "Expose the ACLU Plaintiffs," and promises to publish the home addresses of all individuals who are "using the ACLU" in any First Amendment lawsuit based on the Establishment clause which challenges the constitutionality of governmental promotion of Christianity. The first such enemy targeted for this treatment is a Jewish family in Delaware who sued their local school district over its alleged promotion of Christianity in the public schools. StopTheACLU published their home address and telephone number on its website, and the family -- due to all sorts of recriminations and fear of escalating attacks -- was forced to leave their home and move to another town, which was one of the apparent goals of StopTheACLU in publishing their home address.

Stop the ACLU is not some fringe, isolated group. To the contrary, the " official blog" of StopTheACLU.org is StopTheACLU.com (h/t Hunter), a very prominent player in the right-wing blogosphere. That blog is the 14th most-linked-to blog on the Internet, and is often promoted and approvingly cited to as a source by numerous right-wing bloggers such as Instapundit and Michelle Malkin. The blog Expose the Left (which aspires to be the C&L of the Right), yesterday condemned the "nutcases on the left side of the blososphere" who "are sending unfounded attacks" against StopTheACLU for this plainly despicable thug behavior.

These self-evidently dangerous tactics are merely a natural outgrowth of the hate-mongering bullying sessions which have become the staple of right-wing television shows such as Bill O'Reilly's and websites such as Michelle Malkin's (who, unsurprisingly, has become one of O'Reilly's favorite guests). One of the most constant features of these hate fests is the singling out of some unprotected, private individual -- a public school teacher here, a university administrator there -- who is dragged before hundreds of thousands of readers (or millions of viewers), accused of committing some grave cultural crime or identified as a subversive and an enemy, and then held out as the daily target of unbridled contempt, a symbol of all that is Evil.

Malkin frequently includes contact information for the identified Enemies, and O'Reilly often shows photographs or video of them on multiple programs. These bullying tactics of intimidation -- whereby people who are often just private individuals and who have no defenses (as opposed to, say, prominent politicians or media figures) are singled out for widespread public rituals of contempt -- have quite foreseeable consequences, chief among them placing those targets in fear of retribution. Publishing the home addresses of such individuals is not some wholly different approach, but is merely the next small and foreseeable step, an obvious outgrowth of the hate sessions on which many leading representatives of the Right now heavily rely.

And it is not only those who engage in the tactics themselves who bear responsibility for the consequences, but also those who offer coldly bureaucratic indifference towards these tactics, or even an implicit defense of them. While numerous right-wing bloggers commented this weekend on the truly inane attacks against the NYT Travel article, none (at least that I read) condemned Horowitz for promoting the campaign to publish the home addresses of editors and reporters of the Times. They had much to say about the Evil that is the NYT, but nothing to say about this extraordinary and despicable campaign perfected by extremist groups on the Right and now promoted by Horowitz and groups such as StopTheACLU, to intimidate and endanger journalists and private individuals by collecting and publishing their home addresses.

Beyond merely failing to condemn these tactics, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds yesterday deliberately defended them by arguing that they are no different than what the NYT did in its Travel article. Reynolds attacked a post written this weekend by Reason's Dave Weigel, in which Weigel condemned publication of the home address of the NYT photographer. Reynolds -- who pointedly avoided condemning Horowitz and publication of Spiller's home address -- quoted and then attacked Weigel's condemnation as "incoherent":

As so often happens with these things, angry bloggers have struck back and posted the addresses and phone numbers of the Times' photogs. (No link.)

No link? Why not? By Weigel's standards, a link wouldn't contribute to invasion of privacy. Anybody can find that stuff, right?

And if anybody can find that stuff, why's he so upset about publishing office phone numbers of public officials?

In order to avoid criticizing his comrades on the Right who are engaging in thug tactics, Reynolds actually equates discussion of the vacation homes of top government officials (who enjoy the most extensive and high-level security on the planet) with publication of the home addresses of private individuals and journalists (who have no security of any kind). By his reasoning, mentioning that the Vice President has a vacation home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is no different than publishing the home address of private individuals who are publicly identified as traitors.

And, lo and behold, the Right's tactics of intimidation against private individuals are reduced by the conniving Reynolds into nothing more than a common and innocuous invasion of privacy of which the NYT and many others are also guilty. And with that corrupt equivalency established, Reynolds is able to posts on these matters without condemning the Right's thug tactics, and in fact, implicitly defends them by suggesting that they are rather innocuous and common and nothing to get excited about.

And revealingly, in choosing which villains to criticize from this weekend's treason accusations against the NYT and the thug tactics they inspired, Reynolds chooses Weigel for attack. But he has nothing to say about Horowitz and company for their newly announced campaign "to begin finding and publicly listing the addresses of all New York Times reporters and editors."

As people like Horowitz, Malkin and Reynolds well know -- and just as my most extremist former White Supremacist clients well knew -- if you throw burning matches at gasoline enough times, an explosion is inevitable. The rhetoric of treason -- accusing individuals and organizations of aiding and abetting our nation's enemies and even waging war on this country -- is a lit match. After all, the widely accepted penalty for traitors is execution, which is why it is such an inflammatory yet increasingly common accusation being hurled by the Right against their domestic "enemies" (for precisely the same reason, the favorite accusation of the World Church of the Creator was to label someone a "race traitor," since everyone knows what should be done with traitors).

Openly speculating about whether journalists and politicians are guilty of treason has become unbelievably common of late. And when those accusations are paired with publication of the traitor's home address, the intended result is both obvious and inevitable. Anyone who endorses those tactics in any way -- or who plays cute, coy games in finding ways to justify or minimize them -- knows exactly what they are doing.

As the Bush movement collapses, it is only to be expected that its more fevered adherents will resort to increasingly extremist rhetoric and tactics, out of frustration and anger, if for no other reason. The penetration of these thug tactics into increasingly mainstream venues on the Right is one of the more glaring, and more disturbing, developments of late.

UPDATE: In response to several comments here, let me be clear that I do not believe that the despicable statements referenced in this post can or should be grounds for criminal or civil liability. For reasons I set forth in comments here, here and here, the First Amendment should bar (and the Supreme Court has held it does bar) the imposition of liability based on the consequences flowing from the expression of protected political speech. The point is that these statements are despicable and dangerous, not illegal. The persons who engage in such tactics, or who defend them, bear the ethical and moral responsibilites -- but not legal liability -- for what they spawn.

Glenn Greenwald is a constitutional law attorney and chief blogger at Unclaimed Territory . His forthcoming book, How Would a Patriot Act: Defending American Values from a President Run Amok will be released by Working Assets Publishing next month.