Glenn Reynolds—known in the blogosphere as Instapundit—is probably one of the most widely read, if not the most widely-read, conservative bloggers. He’s also a law professor at the University of Tennessee. And he’s also (like so many pundits, politicians, celebrities, and just regular folk today) a user of Twitter.
I’ve written before what I think of Twitter, and it’s relevant here:
I don’t use Twitter, and rarely read it. But I certainly check it out now and then, when there’s a tweet in the news that catches my eye. Right from the start Twitter held little interest for me, although a lot of bloggers took to it immediately…
I’ve not only not been drawn to it, but something about it repels me…
…Twitter favors snarky one-liner put-downs and/or bragging. Those of you who like Twitter may say I’m selling it short, but every time I go there, that’s what I see and that’s about all I see.
Reynolds is a smart guy, a very smart guy. Ordinarily he’s a mighty thoughtful and yet straightforward guy, too. But in this case, my best guess is that the medium of Twitter—its atmosphere of pithy snark—encouraged him to say something quickly that was not really what he meant. Here’s what Glenn now has to say about it (I reproduce the whole thing here):
Wednesday night one of my 580,000 tweets blew up. I didn’t live up to my own standards, and I didn’t meet USA TODAY’s standards. For that I apologize, to USA TODAY readers and to my followers on social media.
I was following the riots in Charlotte, against a background of reports of violence. Joe Bruno of WSOC9 interviewed a driver whose truck had been stopped by a mob. Trapped in her cab, she “feared for her life” as her cargo was looted. Then I retweeted a report of mobs “stopping traffic and surrounding vehicles” with the comment, “Run them down.”
Those words can easily be taken to advocate drivers going out of their way to run down protesters. I meant no such thing, and I’m sorry it seemed I did. What I meant is that drivers who feel their lives are in danger from a violent mob should not stop their vehicles. I remember Reginald Denny, a truck driver who was beaten nearly to death by a mob during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. My tweet should have said, “Keep driving,” or “Don’t stop.”
I have always supported peaceful protests, speaking out against police militarization and excessive police violence in my USA TODAY columns, on my website and on Twitter itself. I understand why people misunderstood my tweet and regret that I was not clearer.
Twitter favors simplification of complex issues. Twitter favors punchy one-liners. That appears to have been what happened with Glenn, and all it takes is one time out of thousands and/or millions (in Reynolds’ case, half a million tweets and perhaps that many posts on his blog, too) and people who are out to get you will do their best to get you. We’ve seen that happen time and again.
Reynolds has made his statement and I very much hope the furor now dies down. But the larger question is how to talk about issues that are nothing if not complicated, such as the law of self-defense in difficult situations like a riot.
I tend to write long posts and to be long-winded. Maybe too long-winded. Yes, probably too long-winded. That’s my tendency anyway, and that’s what interests me, and I’m glad I’ve found at least some people (hello, stalwart and patient readers!) who are interested in coming along with me for the ride. Twitter doesn’t favor that, so I don’t use it. But I totally understand that if I did, I might end up saying something I regret, too. Hey, even on this blog I might end up saying something I regret, and probably have now and then.
Yesterday I linked to this post by Andrew Branca at Legal Insurrection on the same topic Glenn was writing about: the law of self-defense when caught in a car surrounded by rioters. Branca was of course writing a post and not a tweet, so he took his time to explain the law of the thing in his usual thorough way. It ordinarily takes a lot of words to explain something like that, which is unfortunate but true. Read the whole thing and the links he provides at the end of you want to know the pros and cons of various actions if you’re unfortunate enough to be caught in a mob that makes you feel threatened.
People often don’t like lawyers, and there are lots of reasons for that. But one of those reasons is that law isn’t simple and explaining law is most definitely not simple. To those not legally inclined it sounds like a bunch of blah-blah-blah claptrap. But it’s not.
I went to law school a long time ago—long time—and I never practiced except as a law interne for a semester. I didn’t think law was for me, although I finished the three years. But I’ve never regretted what I learned there, even though I went to law school when I was extremely young and knew virtually nothing about law when I got there (some would say I didn’t know that much when I got out, either). I learned to appreciate the remarkable and logical (mostly logical) edifice that is the law, the striving to be clear and to be fair and to be thoughtful. I learned to understand that this is sometimes violated, and that it is almost never easy even when everyone concerned is trying his/her best. I learned that one of the reasons legal language tends to be so very wordy is the effort to be clear and to cover all possibilities and exigencies, and how it is never possible to do either.
On yesterday’s thread, commenter “Frog” had this to say:
What, Dear Mr Andrew Branca, great legal guru, are the drivers of those immobilized vehicles supposed to do? Flee their vehicles, thus exposing themselves to the mob? Sit there and await a windshield smash, having no defense? What? Oh, Branca of the Ivory Tower, you did not say, did you?
The lawyers have the luxury of chin-stroking at leisure. And of course debating. What they do.
The victims of this black mob do not have the same pontificating hair-splitting luxury.
No, the potential victims of any mob, black or white, have no such luxury. But as I wrote to Frog in my response:
Do you think he’s telling you what you should do? Do you think he’s telling you what’s right and wrong? He’s not telling you anything of the sort, nor is he suggesting that he’s telling you that.
He’s telling you one thing and one thing only: what the law is. And yes, lawyers do that. Knowing the law—and therefore the possible consequences for their actions—helps people to make informed decisions.
I’m in favor of information. Knowing as much as you can about the law not only tells you the possible consequences of what you do, it tells you what a lot of fairly brilliant minds have thought about what’s reasonable under the circumstances (“reasonable” is a big big word in law). I’d certainly want to know, and I concede that in order to write articles and posts about the law a person needs a bit of chin-stroking leisure. Posts are not ordinarily written while sitting in a car in the middle of a riot (although I suppose tweets could be).
[NOTE: A personal note here, for what it’s worth. I’ve been trapped in a car in a demonstration that felt as though it could easily turn into a very threatening situation. It was a long time ago, I’d say either 1970 or 1971, during the antiwar protest years. Some of these protests were big and angry, although not as angry as the later racial riots (I’ve certainly seen the Reginald Denny beating footage and was horrified by it).
The situation in which I found myself initially was having to halt in gridlocked city traffic. I was the passenger and my boyfriend (later to be husband) was driving his car, a very very small fabric-topped convertible sports car (MG) that probably could have been lifted with both of us in it (our combined weight in those days was barely 250) by just a few people. We didn’t know why the traffic had stopped, and then after a few minutes we saw it coming—a wave of humanity, marching and screaming, coming right at us and washing over us.
I don’t remember what they were saying, but some of it was to us. I recall some of them pounding on the car and looking very angry. I considered our options, but there didn’t seem to be any good ones. I felt completely vulnerable to whatever they would decide to do, which fortunately ended up being limited to shouting and pounding. It took minutes for them to all pass by; it was a big demonstration. I don’t remember seeing any police; I couldn’t see much of anything except the sea of people flowing past us. I don’t remember if my boyfriend tried to drive the car, but I recall that between the crowd and especially the stopped cars all around us there seemed no way to do it even had we wanted to.
It the crowd had gotten physically violent I honestly don’t know what would have happened. But I don’t see how being aware of the law would have harmed me; I would have been happy to have been able to consider my options with some knowledge behind me.]