Don't Blame "Rhetoric" for the Deaths of Officers Liu and Ramos

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A police officer stands in front of a banner reading "All Lives Matter", hung from a building across the street from a makeshift memorial at the site where two police officers were fatally shot in the Brooklyn borough of New York, December 22, 2014. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

On December 20, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley took a bus to New York and killed two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. Since then, opponents of the burgeoning movement against police brutality have been trying to pin the blame for the killings on the movement—and, even more, on any political leader they consider insufficiently pro-cop.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani reacted to the officers' deaths by claiming, "We've had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police." Former New York Governor George Pataki tweeted that the slayings were the "predictable outcome" of the "divisive, anti-cop rhetoric" of Attorney General Eric Holder and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio.

Pat Lynch, the combative chief of the city's biggest police union, blamed Liu and Ramos's deaths on "those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest," then declared that the "blood on the hands starts on the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor." I don't think the mayor's office is actually on the steps. But you get what the man is saying.

We've been through this argument before. For the last five years—heavily from 2009 through 2011, more sporadically since then—pundits have identified a (dubious) trend of "rising right-wing violence" and then attempted to blame it on rhetoric they dislike. More recently, we have been hearing about an (also dubious) "war on cops," which again has been blamed on rhetoric that pundits dislike. Sometimes we get both narratives at once.

This latest attempt to blame words for deeds is happening against a new backdrop of mass protests against police abuses; and the politicians now accused of inspiring murder are mostly liberals, not conservatives. That changes the political dynamics of the debate. But the core argument is still wrong. Here are three reasons why:

1. Responsibility for a crime lies with the criminal. It was Ismaaiyl Brinsley who decided to pull that trigger on December 20, no one else. If de Blasio had gone on TV the night before and urged the world to "go cop-hunting tomorrow," I could understand why someone would assign him partial blame for Liu and Ramos's deaths. But of course he did nothing of the sort, and neither did any of the other politicians being accused of inciting the crime, from Holder to Obama to Rand Paul.

When Scott Roeder killed the Kansas abortionist George Tiller in 2009, several commentators tried to blame the assassination on Tiller's many critics in the media and the anti-abortion movement. The maverick Marxist Brendan O'Neill then pointed out what this criticism implied: that "public debate should be watered down to the level of polite Tea Party disagreements, lest any borderline cranks be agitated or inflamed by it."

The same objection applies in Brinsley's case, except that this time most of the alleged inciters are already speaking in watered-down terms. (De Blasio's great crime, in his opponents' eyes, are some public remarks about telling his biracial son "to take special care" around "the police officers who are there to protect him." Not exactly fighting words.) By this standard, we aren't supposed to criticize anyone at all.

2. It's far from clear that the killer was even listening to the alleged inciters' rhetoric. Brinsley apparently invoked Eric Garner and Michael Brown in an Instagram post before he headed out to kill, so the current controversies about the police were clearly on the man's mind. But he also had a long history of violent and mentally unstable behavior, a fact that suggests that the issues at work here go a lot deeper than any recent rhetoric he may have heard about the police. The Daily Beast aptly called him "a suicidal serial criminal who finally got his death wish."

During the panic over right-wing violence, the perps often turned out to have similar histories. When some of us suggested that this made it difficult to blame someone else's speech for their violence, the usual counterargument was that it actually demonstrated the dangers of incendiary rhetoric: that words will not drive ordinary Americans to take up arms, but they can give unstable people a target and a feeling of validation. When Jerad and Amanda Miller killed two cops in Las Vegas earlier this year, for example, David Neiwert of the Southern Poverty Law Center blamed the crime on a "combination of radical anti-government views with personal problems."

I have several disagreements with this argument, but the biggest, as far as Brinsley is concerned, is that we don't have any reason to assume that any of the rhetoric people have been blaming for his murders played any role in his thinking at all. It is absurd to assume that de Blasio's comments about his son would prompt a man to kill some cops, and it's not clear anyway that Brinsley even knew about those remarks.

It's even less likely that he heard the genuinely violent but more obscure anti-cop rhetoric that has come from some of the movement's radical edges. A person is perfectly capable of getting mad at the police without a demagogue inflaming his passions. Brinsley spent two years in prison, so it's not exactly unlikely that he already had a grudge against the law.

3. Where exactly do you draw the line? If you're really intent on blaming other people for Brinsley's crimes, how far are you going to take that? If any piece of speech played a role in directing Brinsley's anger, it was the cell phone video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting an apparent choke hold on Eric Garner, which contributed to his death. If it weren't for that recording, hardly anyone would know Garner's name.

But much as Lynch might love to blame that video for last weekend's killings, he probably knows that any argument to that effect would open a can of worms. The videographer, after all, was simply recording events; the man whose actions made the video newsworthy was Pantaleo. Since Lynch is intent on arguing that Pantaleo isn't even responsible for the slaying, I doubt he'd want to risk linking him to any slayings committed by someone else.

No: People like Lynch want to keep our focus on their foes. Their baseless accusations are tools in a political war, and they're a tool we've seen politicians use before. As I once wrote, it lets them

discredit mainstream as well as radical political opponents. There was a turning point in the mid-'90s standoff between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a moment when the White House was able to start setting the terms of the debate and the GOP went on the defensive.

In most accounts, the shift came when the Republicans' willingness to "shut down" the federal government backfired during the budget battle at the end of 1995. But the April bombing in Oklahoma City and the militia panic that followed was at least as important in shifting the grounds of the argument. They allowed Clinton's supporters to play up the "extreme" anti-government rhetoric coming from Gingrich's supporters in the talk radio right, and to link it to the "extremism" of McVeigh and the militias.

It may sound odd to say that New York's most liberal mayor in decades is being put in Newt Gingrich's role. But that's what Lynch and the rest are trying to do.

Jesse Walker is books editor of Reason magazine. He is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (New York University Press, 2001) and The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (HarperCollins, 2013). This article first appeared on Reason.com.