A Facebook user recently set up a poll asking “Should Obama be killed?” with the options of choosing”no,” “maybe,” “yes,” and “yes if he cuts my health care.” The folks at Facebook responded by suspending the application that allowed such a poll to be created. This suspension is supposed to last until the developer provides better means of monitoring the user generated content.
Some folks, such as Bob Beckel, are calling for the fullest possible prosecution of the individual setting up the poll and want him/her in jail.
While I think the poll was a bad idea and certainly not in good taste, a reasonable case can be made as to why the person who made that specific poll should not necessarily be sent to jail. A case can also be made as to why such polls should be allowed.
When considering a question like “should Obama be killed?” there are various ways to interpret the question. One way is that the person asking it is operating from a malicious intent: they are asking the question not in the hopes of getting information but with the intent of expressing a desire for Obama to be killed. The person might even be regarded as encouraging others to consider this possibility, presumably with the hopes that someone will act upon it.
Another way to interpret the question is that the person asking simply wishes to know what people think about this matter. Given the extreme hostility some people have expressed towards Obama, it seems worthwhile knowing what percentage of people think he should be killed. It would also be useful information for the Secret Service as well. I must admit that I have wondered how many people hate Obama so much that they think he should be dead, rather than merely not President. Naturally, I think such people need to seriously re-evaluate their morality, but that is another matter.
There are, of course, other ways to interpret the question.
Of course, it is rather difficult to prove the intent of the creator from the poll itself. After all, the poll merely asks the question and provides the opportunity to answer “no.” To infer from the wording that the author is making a threat against the President would be on par with inferring that asking “should you cheat on your spouse?” is advocating adultery and expressing an intent to commit it.
While I would not put up such a poll myself (if only to avoid the attention of the Secret Service), a case can be made that such polls should be allowed provided that they are clearly making an inquiry and not advocating the activity. If this poll is treated as a threat to the President, then the same sort of reasoning would need to be applied to all polls. For example, if someone asked “should you steal office supplies?”, then s/he would need to be investigated for advocating theft. If a married person asked “should you have an affair?”, then s/he should be taken to have planned to commit adultery and perhaps his/her spouse should start filling for divorce. Obviously, such reactions would be absurd and, by analogy, the poll about Obama need not be taken as a threat.
Naturally, the assumption seems to be that the poll indicates the possibility of an intent to do harm to the President and as such it is being investigated. If they find that behind the poll is an actual intent to harm the President, then the person should be dealt with accordingly. However, if the poll was simply a poll, then the person should not be prosecuted.
The fact that the Secret Service investigates such polls does provide people with two reasons not to create them. First, creating one can apparently get a person into serious trouble. Second, creating one means that the Secret Service will have to expend effort (and tax dollars) to investigate, thus using up government resources. As such, while a case can be made as to why such polls should be allowed, they are clearly a bad idea.
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