Opinion

Commentary: Can we please tone down the hate-filled rhetoric?

My gut has been telling me that the fulminations of the tea-baggers, the citizens' militia groups, the right-wing conspiracy theorists and all the other angry people shaking their fists at President Obama are more enraged, more misguided and more hate-filled than the opposition to George W. Bush was.

I decided to see if my brain told me the same thing.

It's too easy to adopt a skewed view of the world as seen through a political prism. It's easy to hold the other side to different standards of civility than we do those with whom we agree politically. It's easy to ignore the truth when we're committed to believing a lie that confirms what we want to believe. It's easier to be a member of a mob than to stand alone.

It is easy to forget history. We are too willing to assume that we've never seen anything like this before in the history of this nation, if not the world.

And it is easy to apply historical analogies in the wrong way, taking irrelevant similarities, turning them on their heads and assuming that history is repeating itself.

Above all, perhaps, it is easy to believe the worst about one's political opponents. We're too ready to accept the idea that, while we might engage in some of the same angry vitriol as our political foes, our motives are pure while theirs are suspect.

Emotion often trumps reason, and old biases are hard to shed. To complicate matters, cynical operators exploit our biases for their own ends, further roiling the political give and take.

Taking all this into consideration, I still was inclined to believe that the anti-Obama rhetoric is more extreme than the anti-Bush rhetoric. Take, for example, the recent online poll posted on Facebook that asked whether people thought President Obama should be assassinated.

The poll asked respondents "Should Obama be killed?" The choices: No, Maybe, Yes, and Yes if he cuts my health care. More than 730 people responded to the poll before it was taken down.

Surely this is worse than anything liberals might have concocted during the Bush administration. Surely something this heinous is unprecedented.

Well, a conservative friend recently e-mailed me a story about groups on Facebook dedicated to killing George W. Bush. "We all want to kill George Bush" has 429 members while "Let's Kill Bush With Shoes" has 484 members.

By the way, Secret Service agents have discovered that the site asking whether Obama should be assassinated was posted by a juvenile.

The shoe sometimes can be found on the other foot. Outraged Republicans are demanding that freshman Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida apologize for stating on the floor of the House that the GOP has no health care plan of its own. Grayson defined the Republican plan thusly: "If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly."

Statements like that must be unprecedented, right? Republicans would never stoop to such overstatement.

Well, videotaped clips show at least six Republicans saying roughly the same thing on the House floor about Obama's health care proposals, that they will result in the death of Americans, including euthanasia ordered by government "death panels" for the elderly and disabled.

Republicans — and not just the right-wing fringe — are fond of comparing Obama to Adolf Hitler. But Google "Bush Hitler" on the Internet, and you can see thousands of images of the Bush portrayed as Hitler.

A scary undercurrent of threatened violence runs through many of the recent "Tea Parties" and other anti-Obama rallies. Some participants come armed. Some even advocate a coup to overthrow the government.

CNN reports that Obama is the target of 30 death threats a day, up 400 percent since he first took office. That compares to about 3,000 a year for Bush.

That's frightening. But, going back not so far in history, we had radical groups such as the Weathermen and the Black Panthers whose members actually did kill people. And many left-wingers in the 1960s loudly predicted an imminent armed revolution.

Apparently, then, all this angry discord is just par for the course, a normal part of American political culture, nothing to get upset about. So, am I willing to give up on my gut feeling?

Yes, mostly, but with a few caveats.

Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during a joint session of Congress, in which he called the president a liar, might not have been the most egregious thing said about Obama, but it was an unprecedented breach of congressional protocol. The fact that he now is a poster child for the party is disgraceful.

The so-called "birther" movement, which asserts that Obama is not actually an American citizen, reflects the uniquely deranged and paranoid idea that Democratic voters conspired to elect an alien "other" as president. Coupled with assertions that Obama is a closet Muslim, this comes close to advocating extreme measures to remove him from office. I don't see a precedent for that during the Bush years.

Former President Jimmy Carter went too far in saying that an "overwhelming portion" of opposition to Obama is attributable to racism. But anyone who thinks racism plays no role whatsoever in the animosity toward our first black president is naive.

In closing: Whoever's responsible, can't we just tone it down a bit?

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