Taking Responsibility for Political Violence
Rightwing talk show hosts, Republican leaders and insurance company executives may not personally throw the bricks, shoot the bullets, make the hate-filled threatening calls, or break the gas lines -- but they must shoulder the responsibility for the outbreak of threats and violence that has accompanied this week's passage of health insurance reform.
They intentionally created the conditions that nurtured that violence.
On January 29, 1170, Thomas Beckett, the archbishop of Canterbury was murdered by four knights of the royal household of King Henry II of England. The iconic story of Beckett's conflict with the King climaxed when, in his fury, Henry yelled out "Who will free me from this turbulent priest?" The four knights gave answer.Henry II never struck a blow and never directed his minions to do violence, but who could doubt his direct responsibility for Beckett's death?
Health insurance reform directly or indirectly benefits most Americans. Stopping reform would have mainly benefited only two groups: health insurance companies, their top executives and Wall Street investors on the one hand - and rightwing politicians on the other.
Ironically, most of the Democratic Members of Congress who ultimately voted against health care reform represented Appalachia, the rural south or small industrial cities with the highest percentage of uninsured residents who would benefit the most from this legislation.
Opponents of the legislation obviously couldn't rely strictly on appeals to material self-interest to convince people to oppose the bill. Nor could they rely on the truth.
In order to stop the legislation, the insurance industry and their supporters on the political right had to create an alternative reality to convince Americans that something that was good for them, was in fact, bad for them. That was particularly true if they were to create the political intensity they knew would be necessary in order to intimidate Members of Congress into voting no.
Many of the Democratic Members who voted no told me personally they supported the legislation, but believed they would lose re-election if they voted yes.
But to gin up political opposition among people who would actually benefit -much less the political intensity to intimidate Members of Congress -- the opposition couldn't limit itself to convincing people that a proposal was "bad policy." They had to convince them that it threatens their core sense of identity. They had to make it a battle over people's most deeply-held values - their sense of themselves and their own meaning in life. They had to convince them that their control over their own lives was at stake, and that in opposing the legislation they were part of a broad historic struggle over good and evil - a struggle for their own freedom from tyranny.To do it, they lied - systematically, intentionally, repeatedly.
There was Sarah Palin's fictional "death panels"-created out of whole cloth. There were Rush Limbaugh's diatribes. There was Senator Mitch McConnell's "government takeover of medical care." There was the fantasyland conspiracy of Glenn Beck's blackboard.
The opponents of reform charged that the bill "cut Medicare" - implying that it would cut the benefits for seniors -- when in fact it only cut massive subsidies for the insurance companies that offered so-called, "Medicare Advantage" programs. And talk about a fantasy universe - they whipped up fear among some seniors that "government" was out to take over Medicare - a government program.
Over and over, the ads of the Chamber of Commerce charged that it was a "bill we couldn't afford" when in fact it actually cut the federal deficit.
Opponents argued that the bill would put government between "you and your doctor" when just the opposite was true.
Congressman John Boehner went so far as to argue that it would bring about "Armageddon."
But most insidious, the opponents of health care reform created the absolute fantasy that the bill would allow for the federal funding of abortions, when the plain language of the bill made it clear that this was not true. Remember that the language in the bill that finally passed was authored by Senators Nelson and Casey - two of the country's most ardent opponents of abortion. No matter, opponents of the bill continued to assert that anyone who supported it was a "baby killer." Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer of Texas even accused Congressman Bart Stupak - author of the anti-abortion "Stupak Amendment" of being a "baby killer" on the floor of the House after Stupak was convinced to support the bill when the White House penned an executive order reaffirming that no federal funds could be used to fund abortion.
The insurance companies and the right wing actively encouraged the notion that Congressmen who backed health care reform were out to take away people's freedom, bankrupt the country, prevent them from seeing their doctors, cut their Medicare, and were part of a massive conspiracy to bring totalitarianism to the United States. In addition, they were "baby killers."
Meanwhile people like Freedom Work's Dick Armey - former Republican House Majority Leader turned corporate lobbyist - funded rallies of people who pandered to overt racism with signs carrying ugly racial caricatures of the President - and speeches oozing with hate.
That kind of rhetoric was not just "overheated" - it was built upon intentional lies. It was intended to incite.
And their language has legitimated violence. There was Beck's speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) when, according to the New York Times, he said that the progressivism in general was a "cancer" that must be cut out of the nation's political system - echoing the words of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco of the 1930's or the Greek Junta of the 1970s. "This is a disease in America," he said.
There was John Boehner's comment that Congressman Steve Driehaus was a "dead man" if he voted for the bill and returned to his district in Cincinnati.
There was Sarah Palin's use of rifle cross hairs on a map describing Democratic members who should be targeted for their votes.
Is there any wonder that some people could be convinced that the battle over the health care bill was in fact a holy war that justified the use of violence. Is there any wonder that they could be driven to leave messages on the voicemails of Members of Congress that are dripping with fury and hatred - with anger so intense that the callers can barely spit out the words as they curse, insult and threaten. Is there any wonder that they spit at Members of Congress as they went to vote, or that they hurl racial insults that are dredged up from the worst parts of America's past.
Of course, the individuals who take these vile actions, must themselves be held directly responsible. But there is no doubt that the atmosphere that incited them to do so was intentionally crafted from the "respectable" glistening towers of the big insurance companies, the offices of the national Chamber of Commerce that overlook the White House, and the stately suites of the Republican Congressional leadership.
They were incited to take these actions - many of them against their own best interests - by people who would do anything and say anything to promote their own financial or political interests.
It's really a pretty disgusting story. Except for one thing: they lost.