Rhetoric is just fine until someone gets hurt.
This seemed to be the message of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when asked Thursday about anti-Obama vitriol surrounding health care reform:
I think we all have to take responsibility for our actions and our words. We are a free country and this balance between freedom and safety is one that we have to carefully balance. I have concerns about some of the language that is being used because I saw this myself in the late '70s in San Francisco. This kind of rhetoric was very frightening. It created a climate in which violence took place.
I wish that we would all curb our enthusiasm with some of the statements being made, understanding that some of the ears it is falling on are not as balanced as the person making the statement might assume.
Our country is great because people can say what they think and they believe. But I also think that they have to take responsibility for any incitement that they may cause.
A radio host asked me Friday to comment about Pelosi's remarks. I thought I was going on to discuss Joe, Serena or Kanye. This time it was my namesake.
My first reply was to ask if I might talk instead about travel or the weather. (He was in Palm Springs, California and I'm in upstate New York.) This topic is heavy, not light and airy like morning sunshine.
What can one say but plea for more understanding, self-reflection, introspection, self-restraint, and empathy? And more sleep, perhaps. I thought about putting my radio friend on hold to review works on political extremism in America.
There's no doubt that we're a country of great diversity, not limited just to differences in opinion, religion, race, or ethnicity, but also to differences in propensity to go beyond fighting words. All it takes is one imbalanced soul to snap and change the course of history. Dan White took the lives of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1978. Seven years later White took his own life.
But there have been many others before Dan White. How far back do we want to go in American history?
I don't know if the political language we use now is making us more receptive to political violence. I do know that Speaker Pelosi's admonishment to temper our political attacks is inciting more enthusiasm, but not just among conservatives.
Many Americans are talking back to government, some more viciously than the majority, but Pelosi's broad brush seems to paint all Obama administration critics as potential violent offenders and inciters.
I worry as much about a nation imbalanced as I do about some crazed individual. We are barely on speaking terms outside our protected alphabet tribes (D, R, L, C).
I just had a conversation this week with someone who voted for Barack Obama and loves how the president is performing in his job. Her daily fear is for the president's safety.
Why, she exclaimed, just the other day she practically walked out of a lunch with her former Tennessee Valley Authority civil servants who are anything but sanguine about the new president. They were saying the most hateful things. She couldn't believe her ears.
She is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. She loves the federal government. Well, that is, when the Democrats are in power. When not, it's just temporary insanity.
Uncle Sam gave her a great career at TVA and a generous retirement. When Bush was president, she might have been the one being walked out on by those same former coworkers.
She asked me if I knew anyone who could take out Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. About that she was most enthusiastic.
Dr. Nancy Snow is Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. She is a faculty associate in the Middle East Studies Program at the Maxwell School. Snow is the author of six books, including Information War and Propaganda, Inc.