A Philosopher's Blog

The Assasination Poll

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 29, 2009
Facebook, Inc.
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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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16 Responses

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  1. biomass2 said, on September 29, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    How does the research out there come down on how reliable these web-based polls are versus, say, Zogby, Rasmussen, Gallup, Wall Street Journal/NBC News, Washington Post/ABC News, New York Times/CBS News? If the conclusion is, as I suspect, “They’re not very reliable at all”, then the issue of intent, which is always devilishly hard to prove, becomes very important. Did the self-proclaimed “pollster” believe he could create a less-biased, more reliable poll than the best in the business? If not, did he make every effort to contact those organizations with his polling concept? Did he do it to incite hatred and anger and violence? Or did he just undertake his noble project during an alcohol-induced equivalent of a drug blowout?

    Also, isn’t it highly likely that the reputable polling organizations, despite their limitations and occasional failures would handle the subject with a bit more discretion. . . ?

    The only positive thing I see coming from this kind of situation might be that in its own perverse way it helps the federal government discover and weed out the loopies among us.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on September 29, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I don’t see how this poll can be regarded as a death threat. On the other hand, I think that Facebook is justified in taking the poll down.

  3. kernunos said, on September 29, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    “Did he do it to incite hatred and anger and violence?”

    This just in: Polls incite people to do evil things.

    • biomass2 said, on September 29, 2009 at 7:13 pm

      “Polls incite people to do evil things.”
      In the minds of a person with possibly evil intent, in this case the pollster, who may think he can arouse an audience that’s susceptible to the possibly skewed results of an unreliable poll?

      In the sense that such a poll introduces a new idea or reinforces an old idea in the public consciousness–as it travels willy-nilly from blog to blog (present blog being no exception) infecting the most susceptible?


      • kernunos said, on October 1, 2009 at 9:08 am

        It would seem the most susceptible are those that are in fear this poll will lead to violence. If asking questions leads to violence then Socrates must have been incited much violence. I wonder if we could find anything out personally about the pollster. Like some radicals in Colorado trying to blame the Right for vandalism.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 1, 2009 at 11:03 am

          Of course, Socrates was brought to trial and sentenced to death. A lesson most states wish to send to those who ask too many questions.

  4. magus71 said, on September 30, 2009 at 9:25 am

    I’ll just try to vote this debacle of an administration out. Things have gotten worse all over the board in less than a year. Hopefully, even the starry eyed, single moms get the memo and don’t vote for him again.


    • biomass2 said, on October 12, 2009 at 4:21 pm

      I don’t always agree with Friedman’s analyses. He supported the Iraq war from the beginning, and I’m nor sure if he has yet backed away from that. And you’ve probably heard of “Friedman units”. 🙂

      I am pleasantly surprised that you offer up an article where Friedman traces the beginnings of “hyper-partisanship” to the relentless Republican attacks on Clinton beginning with Whitewater(see a recent post of mine Threats Against Obama/Oct 12-3:47).
      . . .An article that is very critical of the animosity being ginned up by the right against this president and the potential dangers of that hatred for this country.

      I believe he’s right this time. (“Friedman units” and all).

  5. magus71 said, on September 30, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    I just want to vote him out of office, and I hope many other people do, too.

    You speak as if this is the first time anyone’s hated a president. You do remember the last one, don’t you?

    • biomass2 said, on September 30, 2009 at 7:19 pm

      I never implied that “this is the first time anyone’s hated a president”. Nor do I think Michael did so.

      “You do remember the last one, don’t you? Plenty of people hated Bush.” Yes,they did. . . But I don’t remember anything quite like a “Bush Assassination Poll” appearing in a format with anything like the reach of Facebook . Could you refresh my memory?

      Here’s what I do remember. An assassination plot against Bush involving an American who had joined Al-Queda resulted in the guy getting a life sentence. I remember John Hinkley trying to kill Ronald Reagan.*** But Hinkley was just a raving nut who thought he could get Jodie Foster to love him if did something spectacular like kill a president.

      I remember an #Al-Queda-inspired American terrorist# and #American whackjobs# killing or attempting to kill politicians. But nothing like this.

      ***On an previous article subject: You want a good seed for a conspiracy theory? Hinkley’s family was apparently acquainted (in a contribution/dinner party sense) with the family of then VP George Bush. Begin with The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
      Add some eggs and start hatching a plot. . .

      • magus71 said, on October 2, 2009 at 11:13 am

        OK–you did see my link to the movie about his assassination, right?

        This took a lot more work than a Facebook poll:


        You’re such a lib, biomass. All the evil in the world orbits around race and gender in your mind.

        Check out these pics:


        Oh–and still no citation as to where the “fact” about the increase in death threats.

      • biomass2 said, on October 2, 2009 at 12:01 pm

        What I’ve been discussing here are possible end results– the possible link between threat and assassination, if there is one—not how difficult or expensive the threat was to make. I don’t think the amount of “work” involved was ever the issue. According to that wiki article the film cost $2M to make and grossed about $800000 worldwide.Perhaps we should take financial losses into account when considering possible threat level? Seems that most of the complaints at the time were that someone would try to profit from such a thing. The facebook kid didn’t consider profit. Hell, he was a juvenile; who knows what he was thinking?

        Refresh my memory. Where did I state, as a fact, that death threats have increased, and more importantly, when did you ask me to provide them? Note: I’ve been fighting acute bronchitis for a week or two and I’ve been taking a few more drugs than usual, but I believe I’ve been pretty careful to make no such claims, and I don’t believe you ever asked me to supply evidence. So why include the question here?

        “You’re such a lib, biomass. All the evil in the world orbits around race and gender in your mind” I’d broaden that to include “blind ideologues”. Where did that come from?

        You’re such a conservative, magus. For you all the evil in the world seems to orbit around anyone who disagrees with you.

  6. kernunos said, on October 1, 2009 at 9:11 am

    ““You do remember the last one, don’t you? Plenty of people hated Bush.” Yes,they did. . . But I don’t remember anything quite like a “Bush Assassination Poll” appearing in a format with anything like the reach of Facebook . Could you refresh my memory?”


    Hmmm, absolutely nothing.

    • biomass2 said, on October 1, 2009 at 11:59 am

      That’s right. “Absolutely nothing” like the Facebook poll.
      The film was written and filmed in Britain by a British company. So immediately we’ve got apples and oranges. Facebook is located in California,on American soil. The film didn’t invite or request audience participation–as in giving questionnaires to audience members at the end of a showing asking whether a president should be assassinated or not (let alone whether a specific president should be).The film came out 5-6 years into the Bush presidency. Obama’s been in office 8 months. At the ‘very least’, the poll seems to be some kind of perverse indicator of where the country might be–that someone, sane or not, would post such a poll so soon into a president’s first term.

      I was painting the difference I see between the hatred that’s historically expressed toward presidents and this Facebook incident. To me, Magus was making it sound like this is somehow so common that it should be glossed over. I countered by asking for something historically comparable, and I’m still waiting.

      • kernunos said, on October 2, 2009 at 7:49 am

        There is no answer that would satisfy you so why bother? Of course it is apples and oranges, so is assassinating a president and just asking the question.

      • biomass2 said, on October 2, 2009 at 9:49 am

        “There is no answer that would satisfy you so why bother?”

        That was kind of my point. Trying to make a general comparison like magus71’s “You do remember the last one, don’t you?” just doesn’t cut it for me. And comparing a film, which is subject by nature to limited distributuion, made on foreign soil by foreigners, to a questionaire emanating from California USA ,posted on a global network and asking explicit questions about people’s feelings about assassinating this specific black president. . .welll. . . . And ID’ing the source as a juvenile*** after the fact doesn’t render the possible widespread repercussions any different.

        Too bad you wasted your time.

        ***It’s good to remember that Harris and Klebold were just barely legal age for anything in Colorado when they blew away their victims at Columbine.

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