by Randolph T. Holhut
AR Chief of Correspondentd
January 13, 2011
VERMONT SHOWS HOW TO KEEP ALIVE THE LOST ART OF CIVILITY IN POLITICS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Last week, I was at the Statehouse in Montpelier to cover the inauguration of Peter Shumlin as Vermont's 81st governor.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, our nation's public buildings have become fortresses. In many states, elected officials hide in their offices behind a phalanx of security personnel. The reason for this, we're told, is safety and security. But Vermonters believe that this is overkill that a free society should not tolerate.
The one thing that Vermonters love most about their Statehouse is that it is open to all. A sensible balance is maintained between safety concerns and the desire to keep the open and welcoming atmosphere of "the people's house" that Vermonters treasure.
Aside from a cursory look into my camera bags by a deputy sheriff at the entrance, I was not accosted by security personnel last week. There were plenty of uniformed and plainclothes police officers about, but they were there because the Statehouse was jammed for the inauguration. I had more of a problem getting around the building due to the crush of people than I did from security.
Lawmakers in Vermont still welcome visits from constituents. Public officials at all levels are still accessible. And even when there are political disagreements, politicians are nearly always treated with the courtesy and respect that one gives to their friends and neighbors. The Vermont character of openness and honesty demands it. That's what makes me proud to live here.
And, I am afraid this attitude may be endangered by the rising tide of extremism that crossed the line from rhetoric to deadly action last Saturday.
The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz. - an act that instead left six bystanders dead and 13 others wounded - was the work of a mentally-ill psychopath. This fact has made the Tea Party folk breathe a sigh of relief, for they can write off this attack as just another crazy person with a gun.
But the extreme right shouldn't be let off the hook for this horrific event. Maybe Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said it best. At a news conference not long after the shooting, he pointed out that "vitriol might be free speech, but it's not without consequences. ... The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
With the overheated rhetoric in Arizona over immigration, the state has indeed become a Mecca for prejudice and bigotry. But it's not just Arizona. In the past two years, we have seen and heard the violent words and imagery invoked by many Tea Party-backed candidates around the county.
Remember Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle talking about the need for "Second Amendment remedies" if the Tea Party didn't prevail at the ballot box? Or the scattered incidents around the country of people, incited by right-wing talk radio and Fox News, going out with guns to kill liberals? Or the gunsight graphics used on Sarah Palin's SarahPAC website over the 20 districts with Democrats she and her supporters "targeted" for defeat?
Giffords was one of those 20 because she voted for the health care reform bill. She was one of only two on that list who won re-election in 2010 (West Virginia's Nick Rahall II was the other).
The fetish that the extreme right have for guns and violence as the way to deal with people and ideas that they don't like is nothing new, however. Two years ago, as the right-wing backlash against President Obama revved up, I wrote here that we were seeing a replay of what we saw in 1993 when Bill Clinton got elected president after 12 years of Republican rule. Remember the militia movement? Remember the overheated talk of right-wing media voices against a supposedly evil, un-American and illegitimate President back then? It culminated in Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, the worst act of domestic terrorism ever on American soil.
But once George W. Bush became president, the militia movement disappeared from view and the talk about the need for armed revolution in America was no longer heard. Now, there's another Democrat in the White House, and its 1993 all over again - except now with the Internet, a cable "news" channel is devoted to spreading conspiracy theories and anti-liberal vitriol, and even more right-wing radio and tv hosts to feeding the heads of those who believe that President Obama is a socialist/Terrorist/Fascist/radical/Muslim/Antichrist who wants to take away our guns, enslave Americans and destroy our freedoms.
While there doesn't appear to be a direct link between the right-wing hate machine and Jared Loughner's shooting spree, you can make the case that this is an example of what comedian and social critics Bill Maher once pointed out - strong language can poison weak minds.
And I don't buy the false equivalency in the media of, "the left does it too." Yes, the extreme left engaged in incidents of violence in the 1960s. Liberals repudiated the groups and their tactics, and we've not seen anything like the Weather Underground sprout up since.
But there weren't any armed leftists showing up at public meetings during the Bush era. If you recall, wearing a t-shirt with an unapproved message was enough to get you barred from any of President Bush's town hall meetings. And if Medea Benjamin's Code Pink group showed up to events with guns strapped to their sides, like we saw at the health care forums two years ago, they would have been called terrorists and whisked away to prison.
That's the main difference between liberals and conservatives. While liberals oppose conservative policies and ideas, conservatives not only oppose liberal policies and ideas, they also oppose the very existence of liberals. But, as a First Amendment absolutist, I do not believe in censorship. This is a free country, and anyone can believe what they want to believe. But the American political process is supposed to contain debate and honest disagreement, and the best way to counter hate speech is not with censorship, but facts.
Yes, a line has been crossed in Arizona. I am hoping, like the Oklahoma City bombing, this is the moment where the extremists are called out and recognized. But I believe we need a little more Vermont in our political discourse.
At a news conference on Monday, Vermont Congressman Peter Welch, who came to Congress in the same freshman class as Giffords in 2007 and has been a good friend ever since, called her shooting "a devastating personal blow" and talked about the way things worked when he was president of the Vermont Senate a few years ago.
"You fight hard for your point of view, but there's no final legislative victories," Welch said. "I think that Vermont does have an enormous amount to offer to the rest of the country about the way Vermonters go about their political debate. Vermonters are extremely passionate about issues but civility matters and Vermonters understand that."
Welch has done more than 100 "Congress in Your Community" events in the past four years, where he visits public places around the state to meet constituents, similar to what Giffords was doing when she was shot. "My personal experience," said Welch, "has been very positive. On a personal level, talking directly to Vermonters has always been one of the best experiences."
In Vermont, we've dealt with many controversial issues over the past decade - from same-sex marriage to closing down a nuclear power plant. People came to the Statehouse to speak their piece. Sometimes the rhetoric got hot, but there were no threats of violence. Civility ruled, as it should.
I hope, on my next trip to Montpelier, that I don't have to go through a security gauntlet. I hope that the next time I meet with Congressman Welch, I don't have to do so with a bodyguard keeping watch over me.
And, I especially hope that our nation someday comes to its senses, and realizes that if we can't speak to each other in a reasonable manner, the future of our democracy is in danger.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.