ATLANTA—Many people fail to realize violence is often inspired, according to Georgia State University law enforcement expert Robert Friedmann.
“In my work, I’ve found incitement plays a big role in violence,” said the professor emeritus of criminal justice and founding director of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange.
Incitement, defined as the action of encouraging another person to commit a crime or terrorism, is the speech that leads to violence. Friedmann expounded on policing and incitement in his chapter for the new book, “Incitement to Terrorism,” and in the Q&A that follows.
What is the relationship between incitement and violence?
There are several steps between the word and the deed. The first step is hate speech, followed by vilification, followed by dehumanization. The final steps are incitement to violence and actual violence.
Violence is often inspired. Someone may read, hear or see a message that encourages violence and one day decide to carry out the violence. If you review many of the terrorist incidents that have occurred, you will find they are preceded and inspired by incitement.
How common is incitement to terrorism, and does the U.S. public feel it is a threat?
There are quite a few radical websites that explicitly encourage violence and several hundred online sites and publications that state people should die based on their race, ethnicity or religious affiliation.
In general, human beings don’t believe people mean to do these horrible things, although evidence shows it is clearly a worldwide epidemic. It’s happened in Europe, the U.K., and cities like Boston, New York and Paris, still many people maintain a “not to us” mentality. They see these events on television and don’t believe it will happen in their hometown.
In this chapter, I focus in my writings on the U.S. and other Western societies that cherish freedom of speech. These countries have a hard time determining how to police freedom. They have not yet figured out how to deal with threats without curbing personal rights.
How challenging is it for law enforcement to manage?
Police departments deal day-to-day with law and order, provide assistance and control traffic. They typically do not have the resources to handle incitement cases proactively. They typically resort to reactive measures to manage incitement, and only rarely are their efforts directed at employing proactive measures.
Also, very few prosecutors will take a case up if successful prosecution is not mostly guaranteed. Because incitement cases are difficult to prosecute, officers are discouraged from pursuing them.
But there are some actions they can take. For example, the commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police issued an injunction against the owner of a website featuring hate speech against a particular group, leading to its deletion. Because of the police force’s actions, that hate speech was not given a stage.
What drew you to study this topic?
My desire to understand why people commit crimes. In addition, I’m a post-Holocaust child, and over the years I’ve reviewed Hitler’s speeches as well as narratives from others in his regime. These actions are an example of how devastating incitement to violence can be. In that era, people read texts that vilified Jews as subhuman and they translated the words into “it’s ok to kill them.”
There is danger in that, and unfortunately, these thoughts still exist today, and not just against Jewish people. There is a lot of speech out there that dehumanizes many groups of people.
What are your thoughts on prevention?
People pay attention to things that affect them immediately, like the weather. We have reports and predictions to help people prepare for bad weather and minimize damage. Imagine if we did nothing? The damage would be greater. When we prepare well, the damage to human beings is curbed. This is the approach we should take with incitement. We need to be more proactive.
Another thing to consider is the role of technology. Look at what damage a book, Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” helped to do in Germany and beyond after it was published in 1925. Imagine how much damage incitement can cause today, when we have social networks, the internet and essentially any technology we want at our fingertips.
There’s not much the U.S. can do about spreading hate speech in another country, but surely we can control it on our home base.
Dr. Robert R. Friedmann is a professor emeritus in the Department of Criminal Justice and serves as the founding director of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange. His research on policing and the role of law enforcement agencies in society has been published in five books and numerous journals. He has previously served as the chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and the Advisory Board for Study Abroad and Exchange Programs at Georgia State University among other distinguished positions.