A few weeks ago I quoted David Brooks, a columnist about as right of center as I am left of center, on the topic of empathy. Despite our differing political views, we agreed empathy is an essential component of a good Supreme Court Justice.
Today I'm surprising myself by quoting Shepard Smith from Fox News. For all our differences, we share common ground on at least one issue. We're both concerned – frightened is a better word – about the way verbal hatred has transformed into homicidal violence in recent weeks.
"The e-mail to me has become more and more frightening," Smith said. He read aloud from a hate-filled e-mail he received for saying Obama is a U.S. citizen. "I could read a hundred of them like this … I mean from today!"
To be honest, it was tame compared to the spittle-flecked comments I read on my blog and elsewhere.
Smith equated the mounting hate with acts of violence. "They're feeding each other the same bunch of hate … but more and more it seems like people are taking the extra step and taking the gun out."
Language doesn't kill, but it can warp the mind that controls the finger on the trigger.
Not surprisingly, the spike in hateful rhetoric is coming from the right, which suffered a body blow in the November elections. If the only source was crazed individuals spewing venom on blogs and e-mails, I could understand. Even if it went no higher than talk show hosts like Limbaugh and Beck, whose calculated rage boosts ratings and makes money, that would be vile but understandable. But it's also coming from Republican politicians, who use inflamed rhetoric for political gain and inflame the extreme right in the process. That's inexcusable.
Politicians always trash the opposition. But in the Bush era, Republicans raised the ante, questioning the patriotism, the American-ness, of Democrats. To oppose Bush's policies was labeled treason. "Why do they hate our troops?" Republicans screamed whenever Democrats raised questions about the Iraq War. "Why do they hate America?"
During the 2004 presidential campaign, a Republican strategist said, by the time we're through with John Kerry, people will wonder which side he was fighting for in Vietnam. All through the campaign, Kerry's patriotism was challenged in attacks culminating with the Swift Boat ads.
The barrage of attacks accelerated against Obama in 2008. He's not like us. He's not an American. He's a secret Muslim who will sell this country out to the terrorists. Sarah Palin never tired of saying Obama "palled around with terrorists," and John McCain was only slightly more veiled in his accusations. No wonder shouts of "Terrorist!" and "Kill him!" echoed at their campaign rallies. McCain should not have looked so stunned when a confused woman sputtered incoherently about how terrible Obama was, then called him an Arab. She would never have made those comments to McCain's face if she didn't feel validated by official Republican rhetoric.
Unfortunately, the verbal assaults have increased since the election. After Obama's recent speech in Cairo, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe called the speech "un-American" and said, "I just don't know whose side he's on." A U.S. President was speaking on foreign soil, and a Senator called him a traitor.
When language like that emanates from the halls of Congress and the Republican party, it feeds the hatred of people already filled with anger and confusion at seeing, not just a Democrat, but an African American with a foreign sounding (meaning non-European) name as President of the United States. They reach the "logical" conclusion that the enemies within, the Democrats who hate America and want to destroy it, are in power, and they have to be stopped by any means necessary. The ballot box is too slow. Rebellion and revolution are the only answer.
No one should be surprised when words like those transform into violence.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.