So where are we? In a dangerous place, actually.
Politics is a rough arena, and understandably so, for our politicians tell us more and more how to order our lives. Naturally there will be resistance, and strong opposition. We have a long history of hurly-burly debate, and we all know examples the past 200 years of terrible things said and done. Capitol tour guides enjoy showing the stain on the marble steps supposedly left by the blood of Sen. Charles Sumner, beaten half to death on the floor of the senate in 1856 by Rep. Preston Brooks, who wielded a thick gold-tipped cane. So we’ve had our moments.
But it’s a mistake not to see something new, something raw and bitter and dangerous, in the particular moment we’re in.
Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, this week announced that 10 congressional Democrats have recently been menaced and threatened with violence, and that they found it necessary to meet with the FBI and Capitol Police. A congressman apparently said a casket had been left near his home; a congresswoman reportedly said she was worried for the safety of her children.
This is all completely believable.
Democratic officials are right to call attention to what they believe is a growing threat. It is a truly terrible thing. But it would be deeply unhelpful for the Democrats to use this story as a mere political opportunity, as a way to undermine opposition to ObamaCare by painting opponents as dangerous and unhinged. That would only inflame the country, and in any case is not true. The truth is this sickness works both ways.
There probably isn’t a Republican leader who has not the past few years been menaced, and in exactly the same ways as the Democrats. Thursday I asked a staffer for a congressman who is a significant and respected opponent of the health-care bill if he had ever been threatened. Yes indeed. “Over the years and as recently as yesterday,” both the congressman and his staff “have received countless threats—both threats of violence and of death. These come in the form of letters, faxes, emails, phone calls, and voice-mail messages. We’ve had the front window smashed in at one of our district offices. Rather than call TV crews or the Washington Post, we report threats to the proper authorities, and move on. We’d take issue with the recent narrative that conservatives are disproportionately hostile, prone to violence or whatever message the left is pushing these days. They have anecdotes, we have anecdotes.”
Even columnists and pundits have anecdotes. Just about everyone in public life on whatever level gets threats now.
Here’s the tenor and tone of the moment:
Under the news story on Mr. Hoyer’s statement on the Yahoo! news site on Thursday, there was a lengthy comment thread, with more than 800 people offering their thoughts. “An American Hitler might be in the making who would purge the leftists,” said one, who of course didn’t use his or her name. “Republicans are criminals and terrorists,” said another. “Republicans . . . are thugs, scoundrels and rascals.” And: “What did they expect when they . . . went against the American people and are FORCING this bill on us.” “It’s what happens before the revolution . . . people are frustrated over not being heard . . . let the battle begin.”
Here, edited for a family newspaper, are some of the recorded telephone messages left on the answering machine of Rep. Bart Stupak. These are messages left by individuals who appear to be pro-life activists—that is, people who have put themselves on the line to support generous and compassionate treatment of the unborn.
“I hope you bleed out your ___, get cancer and die.” “You will rue the day. . . . I hope you’re haunted the rest of your living day. . . . We think you’re a devil. . . . The country loathes you.” “You are one big piece of human ____. There are people across the country who wish you ill, and all of those thoughts projected on you will materialize into something that’s not very good for you. Go to hell, you piece of ____.”
These are people whose professed mission it is to save children. Whatever else these particular individuals are, they are people whose nerves have been rubbed raw.
Responsible leaders on all levels of American life ought to stop, breathe in, and see the level of anger and agitation that’s rippling through the country. Both sides should try to cool it, or something bad is going to happen. In fact I am struck now by how, when I worry aloud about this and say to a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, that I fear something bad is going to happen, no one disagrees. No one says, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” They say—again, left right and center: “I’m afraid of that too.”
What I keep thinking of is a beehive. A modern, high tech, highly politicized democracy is a busy beehive, and sometimes the bees are angry, and sometimes someone comes by and sticks a big sharp stick in the hive. The biggest thing Washington should do right now is stop it, stop poking the stick.
The beehive was already angry about a million things a year ago, and most of those things, obviously, were not the fault of the administration. People are angry at their economic vulnerability. They are angry at the deterioration of our culture, angry at our nation’s deteriorating position in the world, at our debts and deficits, our spending and taxing, our threatened security in a world of weapons of mass destruction. Their anger is stoked by cynical politicians and radio ranters and people who come home at night, have a few drinks, and spew out their rage on the comment thread. It’s a world full of people always cocking the gun and ready to say, if things turn bad, “But I didn’t tell anyone to shoot!”
And yes, this mood, this anger, has only been made worse by this yearlong, enervating, exhausting, enraging fight over health care. The administration is full of people who are so bright, and led by one who is very bright, and yet they have a signal failure: They do not know what time it is. They cannot see how high the temperature is. They cannot for the life of them understand that they raise it.
What we need now in our leaders is the knowledge that there is so much that is tearing us apart as a nation and that the great project now is to keep us together, to hold us together as much as possible, because future trends will be to come apart, and for many reasons. To come apart because we’re no longer held close and firmly by the old glue of appreciation for a common heritage, history and culture; to come apart because we’re a country that increasingly feels there are people in the cart and people pulling the cart, and the latter are increasingly overwhelmed and fearful; coming apart because we’re now in at least our second generation of young, lost, unguided children with no fully functioning parent in their lives, kids being raised by a microwave and a TV set. All of these things weigh and grate.
They are all, of course, too big and complicated to be adequately dealt with in a year or even a decade. But one immediate thing can be done right now, and that is: lower the temperature. Any way you can, and everybody. Just lower it.