Liberals instinctively rose to defend Julian Assange’s right to publish hundreds of thousands of confidential government documents on WikiLeaks. Freedom of the press, the public’s right to know, trumps all.

But the Internet is also threatening our liberal democracy, as the flood of Op-Ed comments generated by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords makes clear: Any frenzied zealot has a forum to spew the most incendiary lies to millions around the globe. The extremists are abetted, of course, by rabid TV broadcasters whose ratings are directly related to their gall.

This in a country already roiled by political passions, a nation where semiautomatic pistols can be obtained by near-lunatics, including those who believe that their mission is to save the United States or mankind from the forces of darkness.

For instance, the same day the congresswoman was shot, a friend in Vancouver, Canada, relayed a blog to me vilifying financier George Soros in the most violent terms.

George Soros is an evil man. He’s anti-God, anti-family, anti-American, and anti-good. He killed and robbed his own Jewish people. What we have in Soros is a multi-billionaire atheist, with skewed moral values, and a sociopath’s lack of conscience.

Soros is the main obstacle to a stable and just world order in the United States.

Soros has vigorously, cleverly and insidiously planned the ruination of American and his puppet, Barack Obama is leading the way.

On the face of it, the charges were outrageous, but the author of the blog attributed the statements to “four months of research” by Steve Kroft of television’s “60 Minutes.”

That attribution was the reason my friend, a very educated, sophisticated woman, had not simply deleted it. After all, Steve Kroft. “Sixty Minutes.”

“Is this true?” she wanted to know.

Google showed me that these charges had been ricocheting around the Internet for more than 10 years. This despite the fact that Soros’ lawyers in several jurisdictions had obtained public apologies from editorialists in the U.S. and Canada who had repeated the lies.

What about the attribution to Steve Kroft and “60 Minutes”?

In fact, none of those wild-eyed charges were actually reported by Kroft in his 1998 “60 Minutes” profile of Soros.

The only unattractive fact from the report that came close to anything in the blog was the explanation that Soros was born Jewish and, when the Nazis took over Hungary in 1944, Soros’ father bribed a government official to “adopt” the young Soros as his godson.

As thousands of Jews were being deported to the death camps, the official protected Soros, occasionally taking him on official rounds, once while confiscating the property of a large Jewish landowner who had fled the country. Kroft asked Soros how he felt about that situation.

KROFT: And you watched lots of people get shipped off to the death camps.

Mr. SOROS: Right. I was 14 years old. And I would say that that’s when my character was made.

KROFT: In what way?

Mr. SOROS: That one should think ahead. One should understand and — and anticipate events and when — when one is threatened. It was a tremendous threat of evil. I mean, it was a — a very personal experience of evil.

KROFT: My understanding is that you went out with this protector of yours who swore that you were his adopted godson.

Mr. SOROS: Yes. Yes.

KROFT: Went out, in fact, and helped in the confiscation of property from the Jews.

Mr. SOROS: Yes. That’s right. Yes.

KROFT: I mean, that’s — that sounds like an experience that would send lots of people to the psychiatric couch for many, many years. Was it difficult?

Mr. SOROS: Not — not at all. Not at all. Maybe as a child you don’t — you don’t see the connection. But it was — it created no — no problem at all.

KROFT: No feeling of guilt?

Mr. SOROS: No.

KROFT: For example that, ‘I’m Jewish and here I am, watching these people go. I could just as easily be there. I should be there.’ None of that?

Mr. SOROS: Well, of course I c — I could be on the other side or I could be the one from whom the thing is being taken away. But there was no sense that I shouldn’t be there, because that was — well, actually, in a funny way, it’s just like in markets — that if I weren’t there — of course, I wasn’t doing it, but somebody else would — would — would be taking it away anyhow. And it was the — whether I was there or not, I was only a spectator, the property was being taken away. So the — I had no role in taking away that property. So I had no sense of guilt.

In America Soros has poured billions of dollars into liberal causes, from the Democratic Party to legalizing marijuana, making him a prime target of the right. Right-wingers have had no hesitation in transforming a frightened, 14-year-old Soros into “Hitler’s henchman.”

Take, for instance, Anne Coulter on the March 26, 2009, episode of Fox News’ “Hannity”:

“I don’t think George Soros’ name should come out without pointing out that this is not the first crisis he’s done well in. He collaborated with the Nazis in Hungary, as he admitted, so he did well under the Nazis.”

But that’s just for starters. A March 10, 2009, Human Events Online column:

“Soros is a behind-the-scenes despot. He is an evil man who has used his wealth to further all the causes the Democrat Party holds dear. He was also a Nazi collaborator. ”

Or a March 11, 2009, Investor’s Business Daily editorial:

“His ultimate goal is to create a global socialist collective where we hand over our money and/or freedom and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ “Repeating these charges in the blog that was sent to me, the anonymous author called Soros “One Evil Son of Satan.”

And, he concluded, the words of Patrick Henry are apropos: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

After such rhetoric, why wouldn’t a gullible young patriot pick up his semiautomatic, write a Facebook farewell and head out to save his nation by blowing apart that Evil Son of Satan? Or better yet, one or more officials at the highest level of the federal government?

There are similar panicked calls for action in France, where political rhetoric is also roiling. The day after receiving the blog about Soros, I was forwarded another blog predicting an imminent “French revolution” — provoked by the inexorable flood of Muslims into the country.

This from another very well-educated, sophisticated friend — a Paris resident who herself has long been convinced that the Muslims will in fact take over.

Source for that story? Supposedly a CNN report which I was never able to find. The facts given were wrong and the sites posting that blog were mainly right-wing backers of the virulently anti-immigrant Marie Le Penn.

Still, the statistics presented to prove a Muslim takeout appeared to be solid, accompanied by neat graphs demonstrating the soaring Muslim birthrate and the waning population of native French. Problem is these days it’s easy for anyone to make neat-looking graphs and PowerPoint presentations. And how do you argue with statistics? A birthrate is a birthrate is a birthrate.

In fact, the statistics were wildly inaccurate and out of context.

I know all this because I went to the trouble of checking the stories out. There are sites around like Snopes which make it their business to examine sensational charges. But most people, even if they’ve heard of such sites, don’t take the time to check. Life is too hectic. When they get a startling blog they read it, shake their head and, as often as not, send it on to friends. After all, if Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” reported those facts about Soros, must be something to it. Twitter and Facebook and YouTube transform that process into a whirlwind.

And even if discredited once, the lies never disappear. A story shot down in 1998, as were the charges against Soros, can be revived by anyone, retrieved from their resting place on the Internet and sent coursing again around the globe, igniting the demented passions, perhaps, of yet other killers.

How are liberals to deal with this dilemma? Hope that the spewers of hate can be convinced to tone down their rhetoric?

They won’t.

So then what?

Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is just finishing a novel, “The Shomer Dossier.”

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