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When your rhetoric gives you a license to commit mayhem


Two Sundays ago, I was chatting with my friend Denis O’Hayer, the Atlanta host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” on WABE (90.1FM).

He mentioned that he would be the sole moderator in that week’s second 6th Congressional District debate between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

A topic had been weighing on my mind, and I like to meddle. So I pitched O’Hayer a question that could be posed to both candidates. He liked it. The next morning, I typed it up and hit the “send” button.

In the end, O’Hayer couldn’t get to it. Debate management is akin to cat herding, and he simply ran out of time. Truthfully, it wasn’t nearly as topical then as it is now. This is the unasked question, complete with introduction:

There is a concept within Western democracies known as “loyal opposition.” It is based on the assumption that, while you may disagree with your opponent when it comes to goals, or even the means necessary to achieve those goals, you do not question your opponent’s basic patriotism or love of country.

My question for both of you: Are you willing to concede that your opponent is a patriotic American whose election does not pose an existential threat to our country?

Given the events of Wednesday morning in northern Virginia, when a gunman angered by the rise of Donald Trump opened fire on a group of Republican ballplayers, it’s a question that requires an answer.

Not just from Ossoff and Handel, but from the rest of us, too.

Yes, the story of American politics is the story of spilled blood, beginning with a revolution. Real threats to the survival of this nation have risen up since, and violence — including a Civil War that cost hundreds of thousands of lives — has sometimes been necessary to preserve it.

And yes, we have hard discussions ahead of us. A political right has put Trump in power because it sees its vision of America slipping away. An anguished left identifies the same man as something entirely alien to our history.

And it’s not just Trump. The result of Tuesday’s 6th District election in Georgia is likely to determine the direction of the Republican attempt in Washington to replace the Affordable Care Act. Issue after issue is stacked up behind that one. Immigration. Voting rights. Climate change. Jobs and trade.

But we do not need to be stampeded into acts that can’t be undone, whether for the sake of TV ratings, a political point, campaign fundraising or the compilation of a trove of Twitter followers. This is why the concept of loyal opposition matters.

If your answer to the question I posed above is “Yes, my opponent is a person with decent intentions,” then family rules apply. We may grumble, but we get along at the dinner table, and we pass the salt and pepper when asked. Identify your opponent as a mortal or existential threat, and you haven’t just identified a deadly enemy — you’ve freed yourself from the normal restraints of your own morality.

Last March, in a guest piece for Scientific American, Jeremy Adam Smith attempted to explain why Trump’s supporters remain unrattled by the president’s untruths. There are black lies of selfishness and white lies of civility, he wrote.

But there are also “blue lies.” Those are falsehoods told for the sake of group survival. “Lying and bloodshed are often framed as crimes when committed inside a group — but as virtues in a state of war,” Smith wrote.

Whether wielded by the right, left or middle, logic can be a ruthless thing. An “enemy of the people” isn’t worthy of the truth, so why should it be told anything but lies? Degrade your opponent enough, raise yourself high enough and — whether your issue is health care, abortion, the Second Amendment or whose is the one true God — and you’ve issued yourself a license for all sorts of mayhem.

We think jihadism is peculiar to Islam. But a suicidal slaying of unbelievers is what James T. Hodgkinson attempted on that ballfield last week. Two years ago — the anniversary was Saturday — Dylann Roof never expected to survive after he shot down nine African-Americans — whom he identified as existential threats to his white culture — in a Charleston, S.C., church sanctuary.

We just haven’t given our brand of jihadism a name yet.

Equivalency is no excuse. “They do it, so we do it” doesn’t work in the long run. This is precisely why the civil rights movement continues to shine, 50 and 60 years later. If anything ever threatened anyone’s survival, Jim Crow and segregation were existential threats to African-Americans in the South.

They had a moral license to let that threat to their survival change them. And they didn’t use it.

We know what’s happening today. Over at Emory University, political scientist Alan Abramowitz has established that Americans now line up politically according to what we hate, not what we like.

We are 50 years past Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned state bans on interracial marriage. But only three years ago, a Pew Research study found that 30 percent of hard-core conservatives would be “unhappy” if an immediate family member married a Democrat. And nearly a quarter of hard-core liberals felt the same about a family member who wedded a Republican.

We have talked and Twittered and Facebooked our way into this hole. And we will have to talk and Twitter and Facebook our way out of it.

You can begin on Tuesday night. The 6th District will send either Jon Ossoff or Karen Handel to Washington. Anyone who tells you they know what the outcome will be is lying.

Promise yourself that when the winner is announced, you will acknowledge the victor as a fellow citizen who loves this country every bit as much as you do.

Even if you just say it only to yourself, that’s a start. But it would be better if you said it out loud.


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