“With Hatred and Malice toward those who Dare Differ with Me”

            I always read nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts’ twice-weekly commentaries with interest, but this past Wednesday’s column made my blood run cold. Pitts reported receiving the following unsigned screed in response to his recent essay concluding that America should stand together with those killed and injured, united and defiant in the face of the Boston Marathon bombing. He shared it, unedited, in his column:

Your wrong pal we do not STAND TOGETHER. OH MY GOD we need a CIVIL WAR. The American people against the LIBERAL DEMACRAT SCUM that we have let allow SCUMBAGS like those that would BLOW UP people in BROAD DAYLIGHT to be here ... WE NEED A CIVIL WAR. Those demacrats that happen to still be breathing after that CIVIL WAR will have a choice. BECOME NORMAL or you are LEAVING with the 11 million illegals that ARE GOING HOME ... THIS IS SO CLOSE TO HAPPENING THAT EVERY LIBERAL IN THIS COUNTRY SHOULD START LOSING SLEEP ... THERE IS A CLEAR REASON WHY WE ARE ARMED TO THE TEETH ...

            Pitts reported that he once might have laughed off this sort of drivel since writers receive hateful comments all the time, but this piece made him wonder whether the nation is already spiritually riven. If one cannot stand with innocents murdered and maimed, something very serious may be afoot. And indeed, Pitts’ noted the ultra-conservative entertainment and pundit industry (Limbaugh, Beck, Trump, Coulter and Santorum, among others) fans the flames of disunity and hatred each day and must therefore be held complicit in the sort of malicious inanity represented by this correspondent. The Miami Herald columnist highlighted the letter writer’s call for war against his own countrymen and observed that when the profoundly irrational becomes reasonable, even to a few, we may already be experiencing disunion. Instead of dismissing the email, as he might have done in the past, Pitts called attention to the comments of one misguided soul as evidence of the darker side of the broader polarization so evident today in our politics. That letter may not represent a larger trend or worse, as Pitts avers, but as I argue below, his concern nonetheless deserves continuing attention.

            Meanwhile, the Economist’s United States “Lexington” correspondent argued this week that the U.S. is experiencing a resurgence of libertarianism. The claims offered to support this contention were that the Senate had refused to pass a modest gun registration law and the nation did not rush to “blame itself” for the Boston Marathon tragedy and to create new laws accordingly. I am not so sure that the evidence supports such a broad assertion for three reasons. First, it seems to me the National Rifle Association and other groups were not so much arguing for a libertarian position as absolutizing one right over all others. And they did not prevail because of that strategy, but because a small number of lawmakers feared the mobilization of opposed gun owners might result in a later electoral challenge. The lion’s share of the American people neither supports the NRA’s claims nor the policy outcome in the cited case.

            Second, it is by no means self-evident that little immediate support for increased surveillance or new abrogations of civil liberties in the face of the Boston bombing is anything but prudent as the facts are sorted out. Perhaps a debate will obtain later concerning whether more cameras and surveillance in public areas might be necessary to ensure public safety. Indeed, such a discussion has begun and to date it has not been dominated by libertarian claims.

            Finally, I was struck most by the gun lobby’s mobilization tactics. The NRA and similar groups whipped their faithful into a frenzy on the basis of deeply misleading claims concerning what was at issue in the registration bill. I am not sure either that strategy or outcome constitutes a surge in libertarianism, but instead a successful manipulation of a sufficient swathe of citizens to concern a small group of election-chary Senators. Whether such should have occurred is a reasonable, but different concern.

            Yet, clearly, this explanation of the weapons registration fiasco does not reach Pitts’ concern, which represents a virulent variant of “Lexington’s” claim concerning the unleashing of libertarianism in the land. The columnist’s correspondent was literally brimming with hatred of his fellow countrymen who did not share his views. Indeed, he was so full of rancor that he could not bring himself even to empathize with the bombing’s victims. One hardly knows what to say in the face of such misguided animus. But whether one agrees that the writer’s anonymous rant is simply that, or finds it a symbol of bone-deep disunity afoot in the land, Pitts was right to raise the question. History teaches that social heterogeneity represents a continuing and critical challenge to democracy and any friend of freedom should monitor closely whether and how a diverse people is disciplining itself to accept difference. Too many wars and too much blood have been shed, and freedom lost too many times by those who damn differences of all sorts, not to pay close attention to those declaiming against their fellow citizens. That is, whatever one makes of Pitts’ decision to showcase this one writer’s maliciousness, unfounded hatred based on difference has undone freedom too many times simply to be ignored. Those who love freedom and cherish self-governance must be ever mindful of its relative fragility.