Even worse is a legal regime that imprisons eccentrics on the off chance that they will commit murder someday. Klein regretted that "we no longer lock up the mentally ill," while University of Maryland political scientist William Galston said civil commitment rules should be changed to "shift the balance in favor of protecting the community." Such a shift inevitably would mean locking up more people who pose no real threat to others.
If we can't pre-emptively detain all potential Loughners, maybe we can avoid saying things that might set them off. That censorious impulse, which imposes a madman's veto on speech that might unintentionally provoke "unbalanced people," is manifest not just in ritual calls for rhetorical restraint but in proposed legislation that would punish people for failing to heed those calls.
CNN reports that Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., plans to "introduce legislation making it a federal crime for a person to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a member of Congress or federal official." Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., wants to reinstate the "fairness doctrine," a policy of enforced balance on the airwaves that federal regulators abandoned because it had a chilling effect on speech.
The urge to do something in the wake of such a horrible crime is understandable but dangerous, as the grieving father of Christina Green suggested in a "Today" show interview.
"In a free society," he said, "we're going to be subject to people like this. I prefer this to the alternative."