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Poisonous Political Atmosphere Is Unhealthy

This is really, really hard to write. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) is my friend. I spent time with her, and her husband, Mark Kelly, less than two weeks ago. We talked about the debased state of discourse in the country, the awful and degrading nature of campaigns, including the really despicable one run against her last year, the threats she received after she voted for the health care reform bill — and the wonderful satisfaction of public service and the need to encourage more of our best and brightest to run for office and serve in government.

My kids have, since they first encountered her, viewed Gabby as a role model — this from kids pretty jaded by a lifetime spent around politics in Washington, D.C. The entire country is traumatized by what has happened to her. I cannot get out of my head images of her — vibrant, smiling, engaged — from just days before this awful tragedy.

Like so many others, I also cannot get out of my head the persistent fear over the past couple of years especially that the poisonous discourse in our politics in and out of Washington was cultivating an atmosphere that would encourage extremists and mentally unstable people to do bad things. I accept as a premise that Jared Loughner is not a right-wing ideologue, or most likely an ideologue of any identifiable, coherent viewpoint. He is a deeply troubled and mentally ill person. Perhaps he would have acted even without the outrageous and over-the-top rhetoric that has dominated talk radio, cable television news, and even the House and Senate.

But when you have pundits accusing whole classes of Americans of treason in best-selling books, a member of Congress calling the Speaker of the House a “domestic enemy of the Constitution,” a former vice presidential nominee calling 20 lawmakers (including Gabby Giffords) targets and putting their districts under cross hairs on a website, yahoos carrying assault weapons to presidential appearances, members of each party accusing the other side of wanting other Americans to die under their various health care alternatives, it is cultivating an atmosphere that is truly unhealthy. Of course, 99.99 percent of Americans will ignore the vitriol, shrug it off or harbor their resentments in this tribal warfare quietly. But for the malcontents, genuine extremists and the unstable — for the Timothy McVeighs and Jared Loughners among us — it puts ideas into the ether that are like a potent fertilizer for poison to grow.

Then there is the farce of the birther movement. To believe that the president of the United States was not born in this country is to believe that there was a vast conspiracy hatched more than 49 years ago, that included in it the publishers and editors of the two Honolulu newspapers to print false birth announcements so that Barack Obama could be smuggled into Hawaii from Kenya via Indonesia and then groomed as a Manchurian candidate to emerge decades later to become president and undermine America from within. It is ridiculous, but it has not been immediately and totally denounced by all opinion leaders. Instead, there is just enough hedging to encourage the movement and to plant a seed of doubt about the very legitimacy of Obama’s presidency.

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