Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Getting Personal

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer specializing in first amendment cases, recently penned an insightful article on his blog bemoaning the increasingly common tactic among right-wingers of publishing the names, phone numbers, and addresses of their perceived enemies online. He notes that even if these postings do not result in physical harm to the intended targets, they have a chilling effect on political speech in general:

“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.”

Greenwald singles out in particular the website StopTheACLU.org, which has published the names and personal information of persons who have signed on as plaintiffs in ACLU cases involving church/state issues. According to Greenwald, in one case a Jewish family involved in a lawsuit involving the promotion of Christianity in local schools was forced to move from their hometown due to threats they received after StopTheACLU.org published their identities. Unfortunately, Greenwald is incorrect in believing that these sort of unsavory tactics are the exclusive purview of the right. Leftist sites such as One People’s Project regularly publicize the personal information of anyone they perceive as being too right wing. And the website KnowThyNeighbor.org has published the names and addresses of every person in the states of Florida and Massachusetts who signed petitions to get anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot. And just in case you think these postings result in no real harm, there have been several reported cases in Massachusetts of persons being harassed by gay activists after their names appeared on the Know Thy Neighbor website.

The fact that both left and right wing ideologs have adopted this tactic of intimidation is a disturbing sign of the personalization of political debate in the United States. As the right and left continue their campaigns of demonization against each other, they have forgotten that a person’s political opinions have very little to do with their value as a human being. I recall that Bill Marr once noted that he was dismayed that when he met his liberal icons like Jerry Brown and Gloria Steinem and found them to be rather obnoxious. He mentioned that in contrast David Duke and Pat Buchanan both seemed genuinely friendly. A person’s inherent decency seems to be unrelated to their beliefs, be they right or left wing. This is not to say that we should not speak out against dangerous political attitudes (as you have no doubt noticed that I regularly do). But sometimes we need to take a step back and realize that even those whose attitudes we despise are people too, and perhaps not deserving of threats or violence.


Post a Comment

<< Home