Government cannot function at its best without civilized discussion

By Emily Jacobs

It was the shout heard ‘round the world.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) interrupted Pres. Obama during an address to a joint session of Congress in September, shouting, “You lie!”  Whether Obama was lying or not is a moot point. Interrupting a presidential address should not have been tolerated. The media jumped on this major faux pas, debating what punishment Wilson should receive, if any, and discussing the issue of respect.

At first, this seemed to be a one-off incident. Just one crazy senator who had had enough. Then Congress voted on the health care bill, and it happened again.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) first became a nationally known name in the fall, when he wrote an amendment to the health care bill restricting insurance agencies from funding abortions. After much cajoling from the Democratic Party, the bill reached the floor without Stupak’s amendment but with Stupak’s support. When Stupak cast his “Yea” vote, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) shouted “Baby killer!” Neugebauer has since claimed he was referring to the entire bill, but the timing of his outburst was surely not coincidental.

Neither of these men received a real punishment for their actions. However, our government is dependent upon the ability to have civilized discussion. There must be consequences if congressmen cannot abide by the rules of decorum.

These instances, however, are almost inconsequential compared to what happened after the health care bill passed in the House. Ten Democrats have received death threats after voting for the bill. Let me say that again: 10 Democrats have had their own lives and the lives of their families threatened because of their votes.

Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) had a coffin placed in front of his home. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) first received a threat stating that snipers had been sent out to kill the children of those who voted for the bill and just this weekend had a brick thrown through the window of one of her district offices. And those are just two examples.

This behavior is completely unacceptable. This past week, the Democratic National Committee wrote a statement condemning these threats and “call[ing] on all Americans to respect differences of opinion, to refrain from inappropriate forms of intimidation, to reject violence and vandalism and to scale back rhetoric that might reasonably be misinterpreted by those prone to such behavior.”

They intended to issue it as a joint statement with the Republican National Committee. The RNC refused, saying that they felt the Democrats were trying to trap them – if the Republicans would not issue a joint statement, they were bad guys; if they did issue the statement, the Democrats would try to hold it against them later.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip in the House, has spoken to the press several times in the past week, asserting that the Democrats are publicizing the threats for political gain and attempting to ratchet up sympathy. He has pointed out that Republicans receive threats, too. One recent example is Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), who received a phone message in which the caller states that he wishes she had broken her back in her recent car accident.

This is not a partisan issue. It is one that will affect all Americans if it is not dealt with soon. We cannot resort to violence and intimidation. What separates America from much of the world is that, when we don’t like the results of a vote, we still accept the outcome. We do not devolve into riot or stage a coup d’état. American democracy is based upon civilized discussion.

Politicians need to take some responsibility for this increase in threats and decline in civility. Wilson essentially received a slap on the wrist for his outburst, and Republicans argued that it wasn’t worth the House’s time to address it. Additionally, when Sarah Palin tweeted to followers “… Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD,” regarding the health care bill, she was fanning the flames. As Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) explains, “It doesn’t really matter the way you meant it, nor the way I accept it. It’s how the least sane person in my district accepts it.”  Politicians have great influence, which they must exercise with caution. Dangerous rhetoric has got to stop.

Now, this editorial is not to discount the value of protest. I heartily encourage you to take advantage of your First Amendment rights. However, there is a difference between protest and intimidation. By all means, gather your friends together and stand outside with signs. But if our lawmakers must fear for their lives every time they cast a vote, they cannot do their jobs effectively.

I also encourage you to call up your congressmen and -women. Write a letter. Organize a march. Donate to your favorite politician’s campaign or to a political action committee. But most importantly, you must register to vote. You must go to the polls on Nov. 2 and vote. 2010 is an election year in which 36 Senate seats and every seat in the House will be up for election.

We do not need to resort to threats to change the direction of the country. We already have great power as citizens. We have votes.

Emily Jacobs is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]