This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Few Americans need reminding that violence has no place in politics. The alleged death threat against U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is a good occasion to talk about why.
A physical attack on an elected leader – be it Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford or former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell – has a criminal dimension beyond ordinary assault or murder. Violence is done against the human being, but violence is also done against democracy itself.
The assassination of an elected leader overturns the election that put him or her in office. In a broad sense, that’s treason – not treason against the leader in question, but betrayal of a constitutional system that guarantees a government founded on the will of the people as expressed in elections, not angry rallies. In America, elections are sacred. The alternatives are not pretty: coups, civil wars, revolutions and thugocracy.
Assaults on public figures may also be a form of terrorism – attacks on the innocent to achieve political or religious ends.
“Mere” threats of violence serve much the same purpose as outright attacks. In both cases, the goal is to intimidate political opponents or decapitate their leadership. Murray has plenty of company on the receiving end of intimidation. Several other members of Congress – including Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican – have been so threatened. On Wednesday, the FBI arrested a San Francisco man in connection with threats he’d reportedly made against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In the furious arguments over health care reform, legitimate conservatives have sometimes been accused of fomenting violence with bitter and angry rhetoric. But like it or not – we don’t like it – bitter and angry rhetoric has become a standard feature of politics in this country; the left engaged in plenty of it during the administration of George W. Bush.
The anger crosses the line when it morphs from boilerplate frontier hyperbole into calls for plausible violence. Not, “We’ll string ‘em all up come election day,” but “Please, someone shoot her.” It’s a short step from there to an unbalanced fanatic sneaking up on a politician with a gun in his belt.
A few decades ago, most of the political violence and firebreathing threats were coming from the far left fringe. Today most of it is coming from the far right. The extreme left and right are equally deranged – so goes the joke – but the wackos on the right have guns.
The Selah man arrested on charges of threatening Murray reportedly possessed a .38 revolver and a concealed weapons permit. Scary, given his rantings. Some “open carry” advocates look scary themselves when they show up at political events brandishing firearms. Maybe that’s the idea.
In politics, direct or indirect physical intimidation – especially with guns – is un-American. In fact, it smacks of the communism that some right-wing extremists accuse their opponents of espousing.
Trotsky once said that Stalin doesn’t strike at the ideas of a rival “but at his skull.” Genuine Americans don’t settle their differences that way – or threaten to.