With the passing of summer, the election campaign season is in full gear, and with it partisan and cynical attacks, and too often, mean-spirited rhetoric. This rhetoric can divide our nation, harm the democratic process and even lead to violence.
This phenomenon is not new. Shortly after the 2008 presidential election, an Anti-Defamation League report, "Rage Grows in America," warned of an undercurrent of hostility sweeping the country, creating an environment of anti-government fervor manifesting itself in public incivility, acts of intimidation and violence. Increasing numbers of individuals were advocating actions, including armed resistance, against the government.
At a town hall meeting in Maryland, a man yelled "Death to Obama" and "Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids." At a rally in Washington, D.C., a demonstrator held a sign that read, "The Tree of Liberty Must Be Refreshed From Time to Time … Pennsylvanians Are Armed and Ready." Another demonstrator wore a T-shirt with the message: "Civil Liberty or Civil War."
As we approach the 2010 elections, the country's mood, arguably, is more volatile. In debates over immigration, the New York City Islamic community center, the economy and other issues, political, media and other figures have been resorting to scapegoating and stereotyping. Extremists and members of hate groups have been engaged in criminal behavior and violence.
As the immigration debate has intensified, so, too, has anti-immigrant hate speech and violence against those thought to be immigrants. Such rhetoric can incite perpetrators and contribute to a sense of fear and alienation on the part of victims. In another report, "Immigrants Targeted: Extremist Rhetoric Moves Into the Mainstream," the ADL noted how immigrants have been described as a "horde" that "swarms" over the border or as "Third World invaders" intent on attacking our way of life, and are held responsible for the erosion of America's culture.
At a rally in New Jersey, one speaker warned that "illegal aliens and their supporters have a different mentality, where if they do not get their way, they will burn buildings and destroy our towns one at a time, for that's how they handle it in their own countries." In 2008, Luis Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was beaten to death in Shenandoah, Pa., in an attack allegedly motivated by xenophobia.
The New York City Islamic community center controversy has also been marked by fear-mongering, in this case, against Muslims. Certain political figures and commentators have approached the issue recklessly, playing to prejudice and bigotry. Elsewhere, hateful talk has inspired intimidation and violence.
Mosques have been targeted in more than a dozen instances in recent months. At some, worshippers were greeted with the message "Jesus Hates Muslims" and "Islam Is a Lie." A fire at the Islamic Center of Marietta, Ga., was blamed on arsonists. A mosque in Jacksonville, Fla., was bombed during services.
Hateful invective and scapegoating have not been limited to individuals or groups; the government has been a target as well. Anti-government rhetoric has been the hallmark of such groups as the Sovereign Citizen and Militia Movements, which believe that the government has no authority over them. Their adherents have recently committed violent criminal acts against law enforcement and public officials. In May, two police officers in West Memphis, Ark., were murdered by a pair of Sovereign Citizens during a traffic stop.
Hate-filled rhetoric is simply not a necessary part of public discourse and political debate. The value of free speech and open debate is unquestioned. But our political system and way of life do not depend on that alone. They also depend on respect, tolerance and character. We have the responsibility to display good judgment, respect for leadership and sensitivity to others.
We also have the responsibility to encourage our leaders to refrain from demagogic and mean-spirited attacks. Campaigning should be about more than scoring political points; it should be about ensuring vigorous and thoughtful debate in a healthy environment, in which all feel safe and respected, and can participate fully.
Barry Morrison is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.