FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
Updated: May 20, 2022
On Saturday, in Buffalo, NY, a mentally ill man with a gun walked into a grocery store and opened fire, killing 10 people and wounding 3 more. Predictably, the politicians on the left, never allowing a “crisis go to waste”, have been exploiting this tragedy to silence their political opponents and wrest more power from the American people. In Washington, there is renewed push to control speech on the internet because the shooter had written a manifesto filled with racist rants and “misinformation” that they claim caused the shooting.
Joy Reid at MSNBC tried to blame one of her cable news competitors for the shooting when she said, “No singular voice in right-wing media has done more to elevate this racist conspiracy theory than Tucker [Carlson].” Al Sharpton blamed former President Donald Trump claiming, “what Donald Trump as president did…. mainstreaming of this hatred… opens and broadens the whole pathway” to the shooting in Buffalo.
This type of rhetoric was not the response to the massacre in Kenosha, Wisconsin, when two days after Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty, a man named Darrell Brooks, who had violent anti-white racists posts on his Facebook page, drove his SUV through a Christmas parade killing 6 people and injuring 48. No one blamed Joe Biden because he had used highly incendiary racial language when he called Kyle Rittenhouse a “white supremacist”, and said he was “angry and concerned” over Rittenhouse’s acquittal.
We didn’t hear this type of blame game on April 12, 2022, when Frank James, who also had violent anti-white racist posts on his social media accounts, fired 33 shots on a New York City subway train, wounding 10. No one blamed Barack Obama for his incessant characterization of America as racist, and his claims that racism is “still part of our [America’s] DNA”. It’s easy to connect the dots between a President proclaiming that America is inherently racist, and a black man shooting up a subway car filled with white people, but no one did.
Claiming that other people incited you to violence is essentially blaming others for your own actions. But maybe this is where we are in this world today, people no longer taking responsibility for what they do. At what point are we going to start expecting people to own up for their own behavior? At what point do we blame the person who actually commits the violence, and not the person who allegedly “incited” the violence? At what point do we blame the Buffalo shooter? Don’t we live in a society where people are held accountable for their own actions? The devil didn’t make you do it, you chose to do it. Do rap songs and violent movies cause violence? Should political pundits be held responsible for the actions of others?
Donald Trump did not incite the riot at the Capital on January 6, nor did the embedded FBI false flag operatives. If you rioted at the Capital, you chose to do that. That was your decision irrespective of what anybody else said or did. Just as Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi’s racially divisive rhetoric in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death did not incite the riots that raged through our country for five months in 2020. If you decided to throw Molotov cocktails or loot a store or kill an innocent person during a BLM riot, that was your decision, those were your actions, and they are your responsibility. You can’t blame somebody else for what you did because of something they said. That doesn’t make sense.
None of this left-wing rhetoric, in the aftermath of the Buffalo shooting, has anything to do with the people who lost their lives, nor is it an attempt to prevent a tragedy like that from happening again; it is solely about Democrats attempting to maintain power by controlling the speech of the American people and censoring the speech of their political opponents.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) argued that social media platforms must be regulated, and supported the government ceasing that power by saying, “You can’t yell ‘fire!’ in a theater.” In last year’s State of the Union address, Joe Biden made a similar statement when he said, “no amendment to the Constitution is absolute. You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.” In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama writes, “The First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”.
Or does it? Why can’t you “yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre?” That often-misused phrase came from the 1919 Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States when Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, writing for the unanimous court decision, wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
This example was relevant at the time because there had been several instances prior to Justice Holmes’ opinion where yelling “fire!” in a crowded building caused massive panics which resulted in unnecessary deaths. On October 19, 1856, at the Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall, in London, someone shouted "fire!" during a religious service, panic ensued, and eight people were crushed to death. On September 19, 1902, in the Shiloh Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, someone yelled, "There's a fight!" that was misheard as "fire", causing a panic and stampede which killed 115 people. And on December 24, 1913, in the Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan, 73 people were crushed to death in a stampede when someone falsely shouted "fire!" at a crowded Christmas party. Was the panic that resulted in all these deaths caused by someone yelling “fire!”, or were they a result of those buildings not having an appropriate number of means of egress to accommodate the people exiting the building safely during an emergency? And is the prohibition on yelling “fire!”, another example of the powerful exploiting a tragedy to take some of our rights away?
But what is the alternative course of action when a fire breaks out? Are we expected to keep our mouths shut and not alert people who may be in danger? That is what happened on Tuesday evening, December 5, 1876, during the play, The Two Orphans, at the Brooklyn Theatre. Around 11 PM between Acts 4 and 5, a fire broke out behind the stage. Not wanting to cause a panic, the stagehands and actors chose not to warn the people in the audience by shouting “fire!”, and instead pretended that the fire was part of the performance. They continued the play the best they could, while stagehands and off-stage actors tried to put out the blaze themselves. Not yelling “fire!” in that theatre in a timely manner, delayed the evacuation, and 278 people were consumed by the flames, and died. How many fewer fatalities would there have been, if someone had yelled “fire!” in the Brooklyn Theatre that night?
Why is it automatically assumed that if you yell “fire!” in a theatre that a panic will ensue, and more deaths will be caused? Are the American people like George Constanza in the episode of Seinfeld when he is at a child’s birthday party, and a grease fire breaks out on the stove? Upon seeing the smoke, George immediately panics and runs out of the house, knocking over an old lady and running over little kids. The scene was funny because we all recognized that that type of reaction to a fire was completely irrational and ludicrous. What kind of country do we live in where it is assumed that we do not have enough care and concern for our fellow man that we would trample them to death to save ourselves? Which one of us would knock down an old lady or run over a little kid to escape a burning building?
Is our society so selfish and self-serving that we would trample other people to death to save our own lives? If that is the collective character of American society, then our country is so far gone, that this freedom of speech debate that we are having is rendered meaningless. I can’t recall any stories from the World Trade Centers on 9/11 where people were trampled to death by others fleeing the flames. In fact, I heard the exact opposite stories where people went to great extremes to help others out of the buildings, and some civilians even went back up the towers to try to lead others out. Interestingly, it has been reported that workers in the south tower “were instructed not to evacuate”, and “told to go back to their offices” for fear of creating a panic, and many people who could have made it out, didn’t. So, more lives would have been saved if the authorities did yell “fire!” in the crowded World Trade Centers.
So yes, we should be able to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, and the people hearing that alert should be expected to act like rational and compassionate human beings, and exit the building in a safe, swift and orderly manner, helping others along the way, not trampling them. Maybe the people the left is trying to shut down under the prohibition that you “can’t yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre”, are actually alerting the rest of us to the real fire that is burning in our country, and the left is trying to prevent anyone from saying anything because they want our country to burn to the ground. As with everything we hear, we should be able to listen to any words that are spoken, process them in a rational and compassionate manner, and not react by harming others for our own selfish purposes.
But isn’t this the behavior that we see in politics and in the media so often, today? Aren’t the politicians and media pundits rushing to exploit the tragedy in Buffalo for selfish political gain by further dividing this country along racial lines akin to the people who rushed out of the theatre, trampling their fellow human beings to save their own ass? Isn’t the raw selfishness displayed by the panic-stricken theatre goer and the exploitative politician the exact same – run over others to get what I want? The stampeders, the tramplers, the rioters, the exploiters, are the ones causing the real damage, not the people using their words to expose corruption, point out hypocrisy, speak truth to power, and alert the rest of us to the fire that is destroying our country. I would like to ask the people who are exploiting this tragedy for their own political gain, and the politicians who are not letting this “crisis go to waste”, what the fireman asked George Constanza at the end of the fire scene, “how do you live with yourself?”
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.