Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Check It Out

I wish I could tell you that I didn't know anything about threatening to kill the president.

But I have a schizophrenic cousin who did federal time for menacing the Commander in Chief two decades ago. It apparently involved state lines, a vehicle, and some actual weapons.

When Harper's literary editor and Virtualpolitik friend Ben Metcalf declared his intention to murder the son of the man my cousin had threatened to assassinate, his stunt in the name of free speech was only dubbed a "hissy fit," and Metcalf stayed out of jail.

If anything, Metcalf was probably more capable of carrying out the act before being detected by the authorities, but the context of his announcement made his violent sentiments seem more benign.

Recently New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has argued that the poisonous atmosphere of death-threat rhetoric toward Obama could be compared to the environment in political discourse around Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before he was killed by an ultra-nationalist extremist. One of the pieces of evidence that Friedman points to is a Facebook poll.

What kind of madness is it that someone would create a poll on Facebook asking respondents, “Should Obama be killed?” The choices were: “No, Maybe, Yes, and Yes if he cuts my health care.” The Secret Service is now investigating. I hope they put the jerk in jail and throw away the key because this is exactly what was being done to Rabin.

In "Secret Service investigates Obama poll on Facebook," the Los Angeles Times presents a somewhat more complex account of how the poll might have been received by Facebook users, given the tone of satire in many polls and quizzes on the popular social network site.

But officials also said that tasteless comments or idle bluster are probably not enough to trigger legal action. The agency seeks to determine whether the person who made the threats had some intent to carry them out or to otherwise incite violence against the president.

Facebook members had their own quick response Monday. A second poll was launched asking whether the creator of the first poll should be arrested.

I would probably vote "no" on that poll, given the fact that it would be relatively easy to argue that this kind of fake interactivity that a Facebook poll represents is an obvious vehicle for parody, particularly of the kind of simplistic binary thinking being exploited by the president's most virulent opponents.

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