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Age of Obama
Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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George W. Bush's presidency, 2000-04

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Contra Crack
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America's tainted historical record

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From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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The Right Finds Virtue in Extremism

By Lisa Pease
March 26, 2010

Editor’s Note: As crazy as it might seem to any rational observer, many on the American Right have been persuaded that a reform law – setting limits on what health insurance companies can do to their customers and requiring some coverage for other Americans – is a secret totalitarian plot to deprive the nation of its liberties.

Yet, in whipping up this frenzy, right-wing talkers and Republican leaders are risking a resurgence of violent extremism like the militia movement of the 1990s, which reached a crescendo with the Oklahoma City terror bombing in 1995, a history that Lisa Pease hopes doesn’t need repeating:

During his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” But was he correct?

Last weekend, those words were wrapped around a brick and thrown through the window of the Monroe Democratic Committee headquarters office in Rochester, New York.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, whose Niagara Falls office also received a brick through a window, reported that someone left a voicemail message that referenced “snipers.” Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, provided a photograph to the Associated Press showing a cracked window in her Tucson office.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, one of the few anti-abortion voices in the Democratic Party, was called a “baby-killing mother f***er” on his office’s voicemail. The brother of Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Virginia, had a gas line cut after the brother’s address was mistakenly listed on a Tea Party site as belonging to the congressman.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, received a faxed image of a noose. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that at least 10 Democratic members have been targeted.

Clearly, extremism, even in the defense of a certain perception of liberty, is still extremism, and a vice worthy of serious punishment. That people are resorting to such playground bully tactics only underscores the lack of leadership on the Right.

The Right would do better to take a page from the Left in this regard.

During the 1960s, when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches for civil rights, King preached the necessity of modeling the movement’s behavior on the nonviolent actions of Mahatma Gandhi. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King wrote that nonviolent resistance was not passivity in the face of evil, it was active love in the face of evil.

King explained that “nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.  ... The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

King also noted that nonviolence resistance must target the evil itself, not the people “who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the person’s victimized by the evil.”

People on the Left would do well to remember that the violent people protesting are indeed not just perpetrators but victims, too – of a media that has not offered them what only a Fox News anchor would deem “fair and balanced” reporting on this issue.

The major media has allowed the demonization of the health care bill and its supporters, to such a degree that some people feel their fundamental liberties are being taken away and thus they are justified in threatening, and in some cases committing violent acts.

That said, however, the chief responsibility lies with the perpetrators of the violence and intimidation, no matter how misled they are. And these people should listen to one of the best leaders the Republican Party ever had: Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln stressed in his first Inaugural Address that the minority must respect the will of the majority in any given political season:

“A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism.

“Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left. …”

“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Let’s hope the “better angels” in the Republican Party step up to claim the mantle of leadership and call for an end to violence before serious injury happens.

Let’s hope Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and others who have insinuated that violence and total resistance are the appropriate methods of protest gain some portion of the wisdom their followers think they already have.

And then, let’s see if we can find appropriate nonviolent ways of disagreeing on matters of fact and substance, as opposed to violent methods of disagreeing on non-facts and irrelevance, fed by unseemly rhetoric and scare tactics.

Lincoln was right. We must not be enemies. We have too many enormous problems to solve.

Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.

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