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How to kill democracy

Editorial for April 1, 2010

Is civility in our political discourse something that is now out of date?

With passions quite high regarding the recent passage of the health care bill in Congress, there have been a series of disturbing incidents that, if allowed to continue, could threaten our political system.

The incidents that have been reported include threats against at least 10 members of Congress by telephone or e-mails; bricks thrown through the windows of political offices of congressional representatives; images of gallows with a noose being faxed to at least two members of Congress; racial slurs shouted at black congressmen as they made their way in to the Capitol to cast their votes; an envelope containing white powder and a threatening letter sent to a congressman's office; Sarah Palin (the Republican presidential candidate of "death panels" fame) using gunsight cross-hairs on her Facebook site to mark the districts of congressmen she wants to see defeated.

What do these incidents have in common? All were linked in some way to differing points of view on passage of health care reform.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. There is a climate of anger in this country that is being encouraged by bloggers and extremist talk show hosts who are acting in completely irresponsible ways -- then hiding behind "free speech" arguments.

One blogger called for a "window war," and then gloated about reports of windows being smashed. We wonder why people such as this cannot be charged with a crime. After all, in the classic example, we all know that it is not allowable free speech to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. How is this type of activity any less dangerous and outrageous?

It does not matter who is being targeted or which political party they belong to. This irresponsible behavior is wrong, pure and simple, no matter who it is directed at. We cannot look the other way based on whether we do or do not support a specific piece of legislation. The law, and rules of fear play and civility, have to apply across the board.

To their credit, leaders of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have come out and condemned threats and acts of violence. That is the only responsible course to take, because if violence is unleashed, no one gains.

Perhaps this is one way our two major political parties can forge some sense of bipartisanship. Here are statements from four members of the U.S. Congress:

Rep. John Boehner, Minority Leader (R.-Ohio): "Threats and violence should not be a part of a political debate."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House (D.-Calif.): "Violence and threats of reprisal have no place in a civil debate in our country and must be rejected."

Rep. Eric Cantor (R.-Virg.): "To use threats as a political weapon is reprehensible."

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D.-Fla.): "A healthy debate needs strong voices on both sides of the issue. However, threats and insults have no place in our public discourse."

Well said by all.

Make no mistake: When thugs and mobs hijack our nation's political processes, our survival as a free nation is at risk.

Debate, discussion, and dissension are essential to the democratic process.

For our democracy to work, we need to be able to calmly debate the issues. Patriotic citizens will come to different conclusions, but in the end, a vote is taken in Congress and we go in the direction set by the majority.

That's the way it works -- majority rule. Sometimes the Republicans have control and go in a certain direction, and Democrats may howl in protest. Sometimes the Democrats have control and go in another direction, and Republicans howl.

If a person does not agree with a certain vote -- no matter how intensely they feel about it -- smashing windows and threatening people is not going to help.

If a majority of citizens disagree with certain policies, we go to the ballot box every two years and make a course correction. That's how our system is supposed to work -- peacefully. If our political process degenerates into mob rule, or into using threats, intimidation, and bricks through windows, the entire foundation of what we stand for as a nation is placed at risk.

If we don't want to descend to the level of Rwanda -- where people became so angry and hateful that they ended up taking machetes to each other -- responsible people on all sides need to join together and make an honest effort to calm the inflammatory rhetoric.



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