Rhetoric And Violence

Say what you will about the vast differences between the liberal '60s and the conservative '90s in the U.S., 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 available on the Internet.

Language has power, and one message that it has expressed for most of this decade so far 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 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. It broadcasts a message, laced with venom, that borders on hate and 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.

However, it is the height of irresponsibility for leaders to deny that the tone and content of their own public discourse does not play some role in shaping society. Demonizing opponents devalues them as human beings. Trying to undermine the legitimacy of government erodes its moral authority. Describing oneself as a "bomb thrower" makes one a metaphorical ally of those who really are.

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

It is high time for the verbal violence to stop, for the antigovernment rhetoric to end, and for the demonization of political opponents to cease. The diligent rescue workers toiling in the awful Oklahoma City carnage are, after all, government employees. The brave 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 U.S. society.

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