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The violence of American politics

BY SAMANTHA MILLER | APRIL 09, 2010 7:30 AM

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The passage of the health-care bill is driving people to do some frightening things — and these violent tendencies may be becoming the norm.

At least 10 Democratic House members who voted for the legislation have been threatened since its approval. In one instance, a gas line was cut outside the home of Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello’s brother after a conservative activist mistakenly posted the address thinking it was the representative’s home. In another case, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, found an assassination threat aimed at her family members the same day a brick was thrown through her Niagara Falls office with a hostile message attached.

And this week, a California man was arrested for threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., because of her connection to the bill. Days earlier, a Washington man was also arrested for threatening to kill Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

When I think of the type of person who makes a threat of violence — even death — against a politician, I admit I have a sort of stereotypical “crazy” in mind: Someone mentally unstable who has perhaps found hidden meaning in “Helter Skelter,” has read The Catcher in the Rye one too many times, or wants to hurt someone to impress Jodie Foster, as exemplified by some of the 20th century’s most notoriously dangerous crazies.

If only we were still so lucky. The threats of violence are not just coming from the John Hinckley types. Not only has violent rhetoric become increasingly present, some of it can be traced back to respected and powerful sources whom people who look up to — whom people are influenced by.

How scary is that?

For instance, Fox News contributor and former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin posted a picture depicting cross hairs over the locations of congressional districts belonging to Democrats who voted for the health-care law. She also Tweeted about this illustration on March 23,

“Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD.” This is a woman who nearly occupied the White House (and may have aspirations to attempt to again.)

In another example, conservative blogger Solomon “Solly” Forell Tweeted direct threats to the president, calling on blacks to turn on Obama, and saying the country would survive.

Facebook isn’t immune to this type of violent language, either. There are numerous pages related to the assassination of public officials — “Surprised Obama has yet to be assassinated” and “i hope george bush gets assassianted” to name a couple. Both these groups have dozens of “fans.” Facebook is popular among young people, and the members of these groups are no exception.

It appears this trend didn’t just begin with the passage of health-care reform: According to former Washington Post writer Ronald Kessler’s book, In the President’s Secret Service, there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of annual death threats Obama has received since taking office, compared with the Bush administration. The book, published in August 2009, reports that Obama receives approximately 30 death threats a day. I imagine this number has not decreased in the wake of Obama signing the health-care bill into law.

What concerns me is not only that Americans may become desensitized to this violent rhetoric, but that this language might actually influence others to act, as recent threats toward congressional members indicate.

With violent rhetoric possibly prompting violent threats and, worse yet, action, it is absolutely necessary for people to examine the impact of their words. Because if they do not, the repercussions may prove to be tragic.


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