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Rhetorical Reality

Does the American right not see how dangerous political speech has become?

In “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” Randy Newman’s wistful, Bush-era song about the end of the American empire, there is a line about “the leaders we have/are the worst we’ve ever had/but they’re not the worst this poor world has ever seen.” Words to take to heart as we debate whether or not hate speech on the right—above all, on Fox News, in the blogosphere, and on talk radio—has made events like the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords more likely. Despite the irate denials on conservative websites (as usual, National Review Online, with the honorable exception of Heather Mac Donald, made this case with particularly breathtaking dishonesty), there is really no doubt that the apocalyptic rhetoric that is the common currency of the Becks, Palins, Limbaughs, and worse has the potential to make unstable people murderous. Take National Review’s editor, Richard Lowry, fresh from his December 31 column asserting that the United States is so self-evidently the greatest country in the history of the world that “only the churlish and malevolent can deny, or even get irked at the assertion.” He may choose to pretend that Americans have always used martial language in politics, and that “no one ever [sic] before has ever thought it constitutes incitement.” But this is quite simply a lie: Ask the Secret Service, which takes such threatening speech extremely seriously.

Is this speech the worst it has ever been? Again, echoing Randy Newman, probably not. The rhetoric of many white southerners during the civil rights struggle, and in Texas in the months leading up to the Kennedy assassination, was almost certainly worse. (And yes, Mr. Lowry, whatever it pleases you to imagine, we all know JFK was assassinated by a communist, but that does not mean the anxieties that the Secret Service had at the time about right-wing violence were without foundation.) In reality, when, for example, we talk about Sarah Palin’s website putting the image of a rifle’s crosshairs around the 20 Democratic candidates, including Giffords, that her PAC wanted to see thrown out of office, we are talking about something quite different from using words like “campaign,” “rank and file,” etc. that are derived from the lexicon of war. And there are far more telling examples. During her Senate campaign against Harry Reid in Nevada, Sharron Angle (whom Richard Lowry has said he likes) told conservative radio talk show host Jim Manders that she hoped Harry Reid could be defeated at the ballot box so that there would be no need for “Second Amendment remedies.”

If the American right does not see the problem with this, then they really have lost their minds. And, if they do see the problem, but refuse to admit it, then they have lost their honor.

David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.