Threats, violence common reaction to political change

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A coffin placed on a Missouri congressman's lawn. Bricks thrown through the windows of numerous Democratic Party offices. Death threats via phone, e-mail and fax flooding congressional offices.

Threats and acts of vandalism against Democratic members of Congress who voted for health care reform sparked breathless condemnation Thursday, with members of both parties alleging that others are inciting violence, not doing enough to stop people from stirring up such behavior or making too much of the threats.

"It all makes me ill," said Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which has tracked the tea party movement. "It is a level of mendacity, social mendacity that has gripped us."

Is it ugly? Yes. Scary? Yes.

But unprecedented? Not by a long shot.

And we do mean a long shot.

Violence has reared its ugly head repeatedly in American political history, from a politically motivated pistol duel between former Vice President Aaron Burr and former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to the Civil War to the Oklahoma City bombing.

And while discourse may seem crude now, personal and political allegations in modern times pale in comparison to some of the shenanigans that took place in the 1800s.

Look no further than Sen. Charles Sumner, who in 1856 mocked both the speech patterns of the stroke-afflicted Sen. Andrew Butler and the physical appearance of Mr. Butler's mistress on the Senate floor.

Two days later, he was badly beaten with a cane on the Senate floor by Congressman Preston Brooks, a relative of Mr. Butler's, and injured so badly he did not attend Senate proceedings for the next three years.

Riots, threats and mob movements have followed the passage of other legislation, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Civil Rights Act.

"There's a nasty threat of violence in American life -- there are obviously people for whom this is what they live for," said Mr. Zeskind. "The notion that you could, with impunity, attack people if you had certain racist views, that goes back to lynching for god sakes."

Rep. John Lewis, who was famously attacked during a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., was one member of Congress who received a threatening fax with a noose on it this week in response to his vote for health care.

In the case of the current threats, it's difficult to know whether to view the threats as a political movement or as the acts of crazed individuals, said Nico Slate, an assistant professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It's a delicate issue," he said. "There's always going to be kooky folks that will disagree with anything that will be done, and the question is how much we allow those folks to dominate our national attention. On the other hand, I do think it's important to not underestimate the number of people who might be motivated toward violence."

Even though members of Congress are accustomed to receiving the occasional threat from disturbed individuals, the volume of nasty and violent mail has certainly ramped up in the aftermath of the health care reform bill.

The office of Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie, has received dozens and dozens of threatening letters and e-mails, said her spokeswoman Marie Francis.

Ms. Dahlkemper, a member of a group of Democrats that expressed hesitation about the bill because of their concern about public money financing abortions, ultimately voted for the legislation.

Even her staff now gets violent threats, said Ms. Francis, forwarding one e-mail to a staffer that read: "YOUR NAMES WILL BE BLOTTED FROM HISTORY AND YOUR OFFSPRING WILL SUFFER."

Racial and political violence is often the culmination of an "escalating situation" that begins with verbal or written threats, then moves to vandalism and then turns to actual harm against other people, said Mr. Zeskind, who has researched the history and evolution of white supremacist groups.

What can halt violence in a movement is a "peer statement" from a group leader forcefully urging an end to the violence, he said.

Members of the loosely organized tea party movement have attempted to make such statements in recent days, though Mr. Zeskind criticized a lack of forceful statements from well-known Republicans such as Dick Armey, Sarah Palin and Ron Paul.

Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House minority whip, accused Democrats Thursday of "fanning the flames" of the violence by using it as a partisan attack. He said Republicans have been threatened and that Republican offices, including his, have been vandalized as well.

For Mr. Slate, the events of the last few days raise issues beyond just the threats of violence.

"The larger question from my perspective is how we and our political representatives can be decent to each other and find ways to pursue democratic goals through democratic means," said Mr. Slate. "It's always been a challenge in the United States, but it's been a challenge we've been able to meet."


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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