- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Last week’s police shootings in New York City have rather predictably set off an epidemic of finger-pointing. In the 1990s, when Timothy McVey blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, President Clinton hinted not very subtly that the real fault lay with the “militia” movement. Later, politicians and some pundits blamed Sarah Palin, of all people, for the shooting of Rep. Gaby Giffords of Arizona, and when an emotionally disturbed Adam Lanza killed his mother, stole her guns and wreaked havoc in Newtown, Connecticut, two years ago, a chorus of finger-pointers blamed not Lanza, but the National Rifle Association and the manufacturer of the guns he used.

Today, police and more than a few politicians are pointing at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Rev. Al Sharpton and even President Obama as responsible for the execution-style killings of New York Police Department Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. Finger-pointers who seem incapable of blaming the perpetrators themselves blame the trio instead for creating “an atmosphere” that leads perpetrators to build bombs, acquire guns and seek out victims.

Some of it may be more justified than those who, say, pointed at Sarah Palin as responsible for the Giffords shooting. There is little doubt that Mr. Sharpton encouraged hatred of the police not just in Ferguson, Missouri, but also in New York, or that the president and that city’s mayor sympathize with those blaming the police for all the problems plaguing our nation’s minority communities. Still, it is both a stretch and dangerous to blame their rhetoric — irresponsible though it may have been — for the actions of a McVey or the New York City shooter.

At least one U.S. Supreme Court justice has suggested that we should consider restricting speech likely to enrage people who are prone to violence. When Muslims around the world reacted violently to a threat here to burn the Koran, Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested in 2010 that this could be viewed as the modern equivalent of “crying ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” the sort of speech that the Supreme Court has for decades held to be exempt from First Amendment protection. One assumes that Justice Breyer wouldn’t so classify burning or threatening to burn a Bible because this has happened around the globe without violence by Christians. Nor did his fellow progressives see anything wrong with a movie based on the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush, although a satirical production depicting the equally fictional killing of North Korea’s crazed dictator strikes many as too provocative.

Such reasoning puts us on a slippery slope a free nation cannot afford. The anti-police tone of the Ferguson protests and riots were detestable, and it is even possible that the potentially dangerous paranoid Ismaaiyl Brinsley acted because he agreed with them. But that doesn’t make the demonstrators or Mr. Sharpton and his friend in the White House responsible for what Brinsley did, at least not in any direct sense. The legal distinction between speech and “a call to action” or “incitement” is important, and confusing the two can lead to restrictions on protected speech. Those in the crowd who chanted their desire for “dead cops” came close to crossing the line and can be said to have at least some moral responsibility for encouraging attacks on the officers, but even they don’t bear legal responsibility for Brinsley’s act.

Still, Brinsley was a walking time bomb and they may well have set him off. The man was neither an agitator nor a traditional criminal, though he certainly had a rap sheet. Like Adam Lanza, some who knew him realized he was suffering from severe mental problems. Brinsley’s mother had reported him, and he had been institutionalized at one point but released onto the streets without any mandated follow-up treatment.

Like many suffering from severe mental illness, he had also been arrested and jailed. It is estimated that 10 percent of all U.S. homicides, including dozens of killings of law enforcement officers, are committed by Brinsleys who find themselves on the street without continued treatment while another 5,000 or so commit suicide each year. They wander our streets to be set off by demonstrators, rumors or even voices the rest of us don’t hear.

This country’s mental health system is broken, and that is something for which our politicians can be blamed. In a nation that devoted resources and efforts to identifying and treating the mentally ill, Lanzas and Brinsleys would receive treatment and be kept away from those they are likely to harm.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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