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Sun., April 11, 2010, midnight

Engagement, civility still best way to bring change

Political discourse has gotten raw, personal and sometimes frightening, so news that a bomb was discovered at the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse wasn’t at all shocking. Nor were the death threats against multiple members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

The fear is that incivility will give way to outright acts of violence like the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which happened 15 years ago on April 19. The feds recently brought charges against nine members of a Michigan militia, which had allegedly plotted to kill a law enforcement officer, then set a deadly trap when colleagues responded. The FBI found a stockpile of weapons and some improvised explosive devices.

Anti-government feelings are running high. Many Americans are frustrated with high unemployment, a poor economy and government bailouts of businesses. Some of that discontent is bubbling over in ugly ways.

The passage of health care reform seems to have triggered the latest outbursts. A man from Selah, Wash., was arrested after making a series of threatening phone calls to Murray. He acknowledged his acts, noting, “I do pack, and I will not blink when I’m confronted. … It’s not a threat; it’s a guarantee.”

Phone messages for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., also ended in arrests. The Senate sergeant-at-arms reported 42 incidents of threats in the first three months of this year, according to the Washington Post.

Ray Smock, a former congressional historian, says it has gotten unusually heated in the nation’s capital, and he lays some of the blame on the media’s increased reliance on polarizing talk shows.

“I do think that people who are sort of on the ragged edge can get inflamed by all this rhetoric,” Smock told the Post.

A flip through the cable channels reveals partisan hosts egging on their like-minded audiences. Examples include Glenn Beck on Fox News and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. Audiences are rewarding these formats, with the latest ratings showing declining viewership for the less heated and more traditional news offerings on CNN.

To his credit, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., resisted the temptation to fan the flames at a recent town hall meeting where an audience member ranted against Pelosi, saying that people would be thrown in jail if they didn’t purchase health insurance.

Coburn calmly corrected the woman, adding: “I’m 180 degrees in opposition to the speaker – she’s a nice lady. Come on now, she is a nice – how many of you all have met her? … Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re not a good person.”

Some attendees hissed at Coburn’s civility. He should have been applauded. In fact, more leaders ought to follow his example.

Unhappy citizens ought to realize that change comes from those who are productively engaged in politics through voting and participating in party activities and campaigns. Those resigned to tossing brickbats – and sometimes bricks – accomplish nothing.

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