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America must chill the rhetoric of political rage

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 13, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
January 13, 2011 5:15 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

For vociferous conservatives who think that the calls for more civility since the Tucson shootings are all about shutting them up, here are a few examples of what’s going around on the Web lately:

“Sarah Palin is the single most dangerous threat to the future of the human race. Thick venomous cretin she is. Someone bloody shoot her.”

“My hate for Sarah Palin continues to grow. I think this woman should be assassinated.”

“Sarah Palin should be shot for her encouragement of fanaticism against Democrats.”

“Ugh! All the wrong people get shot. Why doesn’t this kind of thing happen at a Sarah Palin event?”

Those lovely tweets were captured in a YouTube post this week that has since been shut down. Their tone echoes the worst rantings of the angry right, including recent threats of violence against Washington’s U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

The far right doesn’t have a monopoly on hate speech. But all American do have a stake in marginalizing vicious, violent rhetoric. Not because it prompted Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Gabrielle Giffords – all indications are otherwise – but because rage is as unhealthy for a nation as it is for an individual.

Any talk about shooting, hanging or otherwise killing people on the other side – especially elected officials – expresses contempt for American democracy. In a democracy, fellow citizens with opposing views are not enemies who deserve death; they are political adversaries who need persuasion. Differences are settled by defeating the other side’s politicians.

America never had a golden age free of viciousness, but it has enjoyed long stretches when verbal brutality was outside the pale of decency. Some combination of the Internet, shout radio, attack television and other rage amplifiers has truly coarsened the national conversation.

Agree with his politics or not, President Barack Obama struck precisely the right note in Tucson on Wednesday when he invoked common American virtues, what Lincoln would have called the better angels of our nature, and called for “a more civil and honest public discourse.”

There’s no way to get rid of the political hyperbole, sarcasm, name-calling and mud-slinging that have been around forever. Politics is not croquet. But when the attacks start sounding like incitements to armed warfare, something needs turning around.

A good start would be remembering what Americans understood in the past: that their presidents and congressional representatives, be they Republicans or Democrats, deserve some minimal respect simply because they were elected by fellow citizens and embody the country’s democracy.

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