After the tragic attacks in El Paso and Dayton, the country should be having two debates: one about gun control, the other about speech control. It’s not enough to know how assailants use firearms. We have to know why they are used.
In a brief speech, President Trump said that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” And while there’s some truth to that, he completely avoided his own pernicious role in hardening that hatred and aggravating the aggressive tendencies of deranged individuals.
“If you laid that speech next to videos of his rallies, it’s mind-boggling,” David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama, told the Washington Post. “He said what you’d want the president to say. The problem is that in real life, he’s a provocateur, not a healer, and his whole political project depends on those provocations.”
Trump largely avoided another critical factor in explaining what moves people to violence: the growing role of the internet as instigator and incubator of hate speech in general and white nationalism in particular.
“The internet is now the place where the seeds of extremism are planted and watered ... where people with hateful and violent beliefs can find and feed off one another,” writes Kevin Roose, technology columnist at the New York Times.
Regulating guns is a lot easier than regulating speech. The right to own a gun does not include the right to harm other people, and the public clearly understands that. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 73 percent of respondents agree that “more needs to be done to address gun violence.” An NPR survey reports that 9 in 10 favor stricter background checks for gun buyers, and 6 in 10 support a ban on assault weapons.
Congress fails to pass these eminently sensible reforms for only one reason: the inordinate power of the gun lobby. But these reforms are clearly needed and legally sound.
Policing hate speech is a far more complex problem. The guns used by the El Paso shooter were a far more tangible threat to public safety than the incoherent manifesto he posted on the scurrilous website 8chan.
No rights are absolute. You cannot use your gun to shoot innocent people, and you cannot use your words to incite violence. But drawing the line between permissible and prohibited speech is excruciatingly difficult.
That leaves voluntary action as the best solution, and the recent dilemma of one internet company, Cloudflare, a technology company providing security for internet platforms, including 8chan, a “cesspool of hate” in the words of Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince.
After the El Paso murders, Cloudflare came under intense pressure to abandon 8chan as a customer. But the company waffled. Then Prince changed his mind and terminated 8chan’s contract. “The rationale is simple: They have proven themselves to be lawless, and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths,” Prince said in a statement. But he remains conflicted.
What’s not in question is the vital, virulent role of the president in making the problem worse, not better. If the internet is where “the seeds of extremism are planted and watered,” Trump’s tantrums give those toxic tendrils oxygen and fertilizer. No one pulls the trigger alone.