"So where are we? In a dangerous place, actually. Politics is a rough arena, and understandably so, for our politicians tell us more and more how to order our lives. Naturally there will be resistance, and strong opposition." -- Peggy Noonan, journalist
Democratic government is breaking down and American society is reaching a crisis point. As Broken Government, a week-long primetime series that aired on CNN in February 2010 made clear, Americans generally view their government as corrupt.
That impression is only worsening as time goes on. Shortly before the House of Representatives voted to overhaul the nation's health care system, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey asking Americans to provide the one word that best describes their current impressions of Congress. The results were overwhelmingly negative. Of those offering a response, 86% said something negative (with "dysfunctional," "corrupt" and "selfish" being the most used words).
Other national studies echo this growing pessimistic, anti-government sentiment. For example, 61% of Americans believe the country is in decline. Only a quarter of the population thinks the government can be trusted. And 56% of those questioned believe the federal government is so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been an explosive growth in recent years in the number of anti-government individuals and groups in the U.S. that see the government as their enemy. Media hype to the contrary, this anti-government sentiment is not limited to those of one particular political persuasion. Indeed, it's coming from many different directions. Yet in itself, the mere existence of these groups is not problematic. What is troubling is the growing number of Americans who feel so disenfranchised that they are willing to engage in desperate acts of violence just to voice their discontent.
Joseph Stack started the ball rolling on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010, when he flew his plane into an Internal Revenue Service office building in Austin, Texas, killing himself and an IRS employee.
Leaving behind a suicide note that cited the Communist Creed, among other left-wing sentiments, Stack wrote, "Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."
It was the shot heard round the world, or at least round the country, a declaration of war by a discontented American against the U.S. government. Or, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich put it, a "flare with the dark afterlife of an omen."
In the days and weeks that followed, a motley crew of disgruntled and discontented Americans took up Stack's banner. Some praised his perceived patriotism and martyrdom. One woman in Louisville, Kentucky, actually started a Facebook fan page for Stack that garnered more than 200 members before the site took it down. "Finally, an American took a stand against our tyrannical government that no longer follows the Constitution," she wrote. An engineer in San Diego praised Stack on Twitter: "Joe Stack, you are a true American Hero and we need more of you to make a stand." Others used the incident as a political stepping stone of sorts. Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, was quoted as saying, "It's sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it's an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the I.R.S., it's going to be a happy day for America."
Most disconcerting, however, has been the tendency on the part of some politicians to employ violent imagery and invective in their rhetoric. For example, in 2009, Minnesotan Congresswoman Michele Bachmann announced that she wanted "people in Minnesota armed and dangerous" to oppose any Obama administration climate change initiatives. Debra Medina, a 2010 candidate for governor of Texas, reminded those at a political rally that "the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots." Richard Behney, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Indiana, told a Tea Party gathering what he would do if the 2010 elections didn't produce the desired results: "I'm cleaning my guns and getting ready for the big show. And I'm serious about that, and I bet you are, too." And just one day after Stack's plane collided with the Austin IRS building, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty told an audience to emulate Tiger Woods' wife and "take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country."
With all the violent invective being tossed about, it's little wonder that on Thursday, March 4, 2010, three weeks after Stack turned his aircraft into a deadly fireball, John Patrick Bedell approached an entrance to the Pentagon, pulled out a semiautomatic weapon and opened fire. He, too, has been described as subscribing to extremist anti-government sentiments.
Now, in the wake of the health care reform law being pushed through, this so-called populist anger is being turned on the President and members of Congress. Yet as Randy Millam of Iowa warned shortly after the bill became law, "The president just about declared war against the American people last weekend. I'm not ready for outright violence yet. We have to be civil as long as we can." The key word here is yet.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before civility went by the wayside. Sporadic acts of violence have broken out around the country, mostly aimed at Democratic Congressmen. Missouri representative Russ Carnahan had a coffin placed "near his home." This came on the heels of the gas line being cut at the home of Virginia Representative Tom Perriello's brother. Michigan Representative Bart Stupak was sent death threats, and New York Representative Louise Slaughter was left a voice mail message saying snipers were being deployed to kill the children of those who voted for health care overhaul.
What can be done to abate this anger on the part of discontented Americans and head off bloodshed?
First, we need political leadership that will bind us together, not drive us apart. "The biggest thing Washington should do right now," writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, "is stop poking the stick." Americans are understandably angry at the state of the economy and a host of other problems plaguing the country. Most of all, however, Americans are angry at a government that they believe does not hear them, and that anger is growing hotter by the day. But are our leaders listening? The Obama administration is "full of people who are so bright, and led by one who is very bright, and yet they have a signal failure," writes Noonan. "They do not know what time it is. They cannot see how high the temperature is. They cannot for the life of them understand that they raise it." One thing politicians can do right now, as Noonan writes, is to "lower the temperature. Any way you can, everybody. Just lower."
How can Obama lower the temperature on this inferno of discontent that threatens to overtake America? Before he does anything else, the President should focus exclusively on creating jobs and getting people back to work. We cannot afford for him to get sidetracked by other, less urgent, projects. The last thing we need right now is legislation that might further antagonize people. In other words, Mr. President, don't poke the stick anymore.
Second, as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently declared, "Violence solves no social problems; it merely creates new and more complicated ones." And "to retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives."
Yes, the chain of hate must be cut off. But it has to start in Washington. In other words, hope and change must become more than slogans in America, and our politicians need to take the lead in "projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives."