Colorado Springs Shooting: When Does Rhetoric Go Too Far?


“No more baby parts.”

That was part of a statement made to police by Robert Lewis Dear, the Colorado Springs gunman who killed three people and injured several others at a Planned Parenthood clinic on Friday.  It is a reference to anti-Planned Parenthood attack videos that were released earlier this year by the Center For Medical Progress, which generated a firestorm of controversy and became a defining issue for many Republican presidential candidates.  The most notable of those candidates was Carly Fiorina, who described, in horrific detail, a scenario in which a live baby could be seen kicking as it awaited the harvesting of its organs, which was alleged to have taken place at the hands of Planned Parenthood, during the first Republican debate several weeks ago.

Upon being posted to the internet, the “sting” videos released by CMP came under a large amount of criticism for being heavily edited and highly misleading, and the scenario that Fiorina described could not actually be found in any video pertaining to Planned Parenthood.  Still, the allegations became a highly debated wedge between the political right and left.  Flash forward to the murder of a police officer and two civilians on Friday, and the question of whether Fiorina, CMP and others on the political right bear any responsibility for the attacks has exploded on social media.

Many on the left are saying that Fiorina and company have blood on their hands, and that the murders are the inevitable result of increasingly hostile anti-abortion rhetoric from pro-life conservatives.  While I am about as liberal as they come on most issues and staunchly pro-choice, I have not been quick to jump on this bandwagon.  In my opinion, when we start assigning blame for murder upon someone other than the murderer because of words or expression, we begin to venture down a slippery slope that endangers free speech rights.  In my view, the responsibility for murder lies solely on the shoulders of the actual killer, in almost all cases.

Which doesn’t mean that I believe in absolute free speech rights or that we don’t already have instances where someone’s words can get them in trouble because of the actions of another.  There is the obvious example of someone yelling “fire” in a crowded theater and being held liable for any deaths or injuries that result from the stampede it would cause, which I agree with.  Under current law, a person also can’t incite a crowd to riot or violence without sharing some of the blame.  Charles Manson was convicted of many murders that he physically did not commit, but which resulted directly from his powerful influence as a cult leader.  I have no problem with him rotting in jail.  However, other than scenarios such as these, I generally believe that the person guilty of murder is the actual killer, and not someone else.  Robert Lewis Dear decided to kill, loaded his rifle, and pulled the trigger, not anybody else.

Fiorina’s debate speech pertaining to Planned Parenthood and the CMP videos are particularly problematic, however, because they have been widely debunked as misleading or outright non-existent.  If a person’s incendiary speech involves actual known facts, they can at least be afforded the defense that what they said mirrors reality.  Not so with Fiorina and CMP.  It can’t be denied that, if the lies about Planned Parenthood had not been published by CMP, a domestic terrorist like Robert Lewis Dear would not have had the misguided inspiration that led him to commit murder, even if it was just part of his motivation.  And Fiorina pressing the issue on a national presidential debate stage in graphic detail definitely fanned the flames of the controversy and kept it alive in the hearts and minds of potentially violent anti-abortionists who might be on the verge of snapping.  In terms of cause and effect, it can definitely be argued that Fiorina, CMP and the others who pushed the fraudulent narrative are linked to Dear’s ultimate decision to kill.  In other words, if the lie wasn’t put out there, at least that portion of Dear’s drive to kill would not exist either, or at the very least wouldn’t have been as strong.

While I don’t believe Fiorina or the rest of the opponents of Planned Parenthood who pushed the fake “baby parts” narrative share direct responsibility for the Colorado Springs murders, I do think they bear shame for putting an egregious lie out into the world, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of three people.  Words don’t kill, but rhetoric can shape consciousness.  And when that consciousness becomes one on the verge of murder or other heinous crimes, any decent person would tread carefully.  Which was perhaps too tall an order for Fiorina, CMP and many others in the Republican party.


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