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Hate in the Debate: Let’s Take a Step Back

January 11, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


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In the wake of the weekend shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six people at her constituent event in Tucson, there has been a lot of commentary about the need to tone down the vitriol that has infused our political discourse. 

Giffords herself espoused that view in March, after her Tucson office was vandalized in the wake of her vote on the health care bill.  As E.J. Dionne noted in the Washington Post, Giffords spoke of her concern about way some politicians and others have of “firing people up.”

“When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action." 

She noted that some of her colleagues, 20- and 30-year veterans in Congress, told her they had “never seen it like this.” 

Indeed, during last year’s campaign season, more than 130 former Members of Congress signed an open letter to all candidates running for Congressional office.  In the letter, they deplore the state of our political system, in which “Congress appears gripped by zero-sum game partisanship.”

“The divisive and mean-spirited way debate often occurs inside Congress is encouraged and repeated outside: on cable news shows, in blogs and in rallies. Members who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are not viewed with shame but are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers.

Meanwhile, lawmakers who try to address problems and find workable solutions across party lines find themselves denigrated by an angry fringe of partisans, people unhappy that their representatives would even deign to work with the enemy.”

These former Members of Congress urge all candidates “to conduct campaigns for Congress with decency and respect toward opponents….”

Arizona has been particularly infected with violent and hateful rhetoric.  The immigration debate has provided plenty of fuel for extremists bent on demonizing their opponents.  For example, during a rally to support Arizona’s SB 1070, Barbara Coe, from the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, urged those in the crowd to call their representatives and let them know they support the law.  She then went on to say,

“It is now our responsibility to stand up and be counted.  This is our turning point. The traitors have underestimated the power of Americans. No mas. … God forbid it should come to this but if it should come to this, lock and load.”

Judge John Roll, one of the six people killed on Saturday, made a controversial ruling in an immigration-related case in 2009.  Talk radio shows “fired up” their audience and the judge received so many death threats against him and his family that he was briefly put under 24-hour protection by U.S. Marshalls.

The young man who shot and killed the six people in Tucson Saturday appears to have been seriously unstable.  It is not possible to make a direct connection between Arizona’s toxic political environment and his act, but as the New York Times editorialized on Sunday, he is

“very much a part of a widespread squall of fear, anger and intolerance that has produced violent threats against scores of politicians and infected the political mainstream with violent imagery.”

Commenting on the threats faced by federal employees and politicians in recent years, Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association said,

"Policy differences are one thing; violent imagery in their service is another." 

Very true.  What we are talking about, ultimately, are different policy choices, with differences of opinion on the best choice for the nation and its people—whether it be health care reform, immigration reform, or reforms proposed to solve any number of tough problems facing the nation.  There is no room for hate in a policy debate.

Jim Kolbe, who represented Arizona’s 8th Congressional District prior to Gabrielle Giffords, underlined this point, telling NPR over the weekend,

“I would advise Americans to lower the tone. I think we need to have a more civil discourse. We need to have greater respect for each other. We need to understand that people in political office, while we disagree with them, they're trying for the most part - they try to do their very best, and that we need to have some respect for those who are willing to put themselves out there and run for political office.”

It is not a problem of partisan politics; it is a problem of the extremes.  When the extremes become so loud that we forget what the debate is about, as Ms. Giffords said back in March,

“…leaders - community leaders, not just political leaders - have to stand back … and say, 'Whoa, let's take a step back here.' "

It’s time to take that step.  Today, members of both parties in Congress are thinking about the implications of what happened over the weekend.  Let’s hope that, when they return to business, they will have their vigorous policy debates with a little more attention to the consequences of infusing the debate with hate.


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