It's been obvious for some time that political discourse in this country has been coarsened by angry voices on the right and left, but recent outbursts of hostility have taken political differences to dangerous levels.
Threats, expletives and vandalism have become weapons of choice for a few on the far ends of the political spectrum, crossing the line from legitimate opposition into criminal activity. It's gone far enough for the police and FBI to say they are investigating attacks and threats against Democratic members of Congress who voted for health care reform.
So far, the damage has been limited to property, and the name-calling has not resulted in any actual fistfights, but that's hardly a reason for comfort. There's a difference between free speech and hate speech with the potential to incite violence. Some political leaders and commentators either don't know the difference or are willfully ignoring the consequences of inflammatory speech and imagery.
It starts with yelling, "You lie!" at the president during the State of the Union speech and goes on with shouts of "baby-killer" aimed at a supporter of health care reform on the floor of the House. This not only poisons the political environment but also polarizes the debate and makes the underlying differences impossible to reconcile by conventional political means.
Robust debate has long been a part of the American political tradition. In a time of increasing partisanship, though, elected leaders have a responsibility to exercise restraint. There is a difference between rallying the troops and inciting them to anger, and when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urges supporters on Twitter, "Don't retreat. Instead - RELOAD," it only makes matters worse.
The anger virus infecting the body politic doesn't stop in Washington. In Tallahassee, Fla., last week, security personnel had to form a protective cordon after an emotional debate in the House PreK-12 Policy Committee ended with angry teachers yelling and shaking their fists at lawmakers.
In Washington, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has condemned the violence and threats as unacceptable and told supporters to "channel their anger into positive change." Other elected leaders should also make a strong and unequivocal commitment to civil discourse and lead by example. Step back from the brink before it's too late.