Rhetoric And Violence

Say what you will about the vast differences between the liberal '60s and the conservative '90s. The two decades have this much in common: Both were filled with vitriolic antigovernment rhetoric and both saw innocent people killed by bombs set off to protest perceived government tyranny. The actual violence came from the fringe, but the verbal violence was floridly expressed by established social and political figures and organizations. Left-wing fanatics blew up a lab at the University of Wisconsin, but the recipe for making bombs was printed in The New York Review of Books. Right-wing fanatics blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, but the bomb formula was readily available on the Internet.

Language has power, and one message it has expressed lately is that the American government is somehow illegitimate, held hostage by evil elites hostile to the masses. There has been a second message as well: Truth lies in the simplicity of extremes, not in the complexity of the middle. Shouted on TV and radio, printed on E-mail and electronic bulletin boards, published in newspapers and magazines, even voiced in the halls of Congress, this language of alienation and anger has dominated public discourse. There's even a name for it on the airwaves--"sharp-elbow" shows, where guests nail their opponents by using explosive language to paint them as extremists. It is an interchange that admits no complexity of issue or compromise of policy.

It is, of course, absurd to hold public officials and pundits responsible for the lunatic actions of a few individuals. Politicians who call for a smaller federal government do not create a climate for violence. Nor do those who claim that many will suffer without a big government.

But it is the height of irresponsibility for leaders to say that the tone and content of their own public discourse plays no role in shaping society. Demonizing opponents devalues them as human beings. Delegitimizing government erodes its authority. Describing oneself as a "bomb thrower" makes one a metaphorical ally of those who do throw bombs.

It doesn't help when a Democratic congressman calls his Republican opponents "Nazis" because they want to reform welfare and reduce government spending. It doesn't help when the Republican Speaker of the House describes the Clinton Administration as "the enemy of normal Americans." And it doesn't help when Jesse Helms, the Republican

senator from North Carolina, tells the President that he better stay out of his state unless he brings a bodyguard to protect him.

It is time for the verbal violence to stop, for the government-is-bad rhetoric to end, and for the demonization of political opponents to cease. The diligent rescue workers in Oklahoma City are, after all, government employees. The diligent officers who are tracking down the killers work for the government. America lives in the middle, not in the extremes. It is time for civility to be returned to our society.

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