What to Make of the Rise in Threats Against Members of Congress

Serious threats are up threefold compared to last year

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Both The Washington Post and Time carry stories today about the health-care-fueled rise in threats against members of Congress. "The lawmakers reported 42 threats in the first three months of this year," report Sari Horwitz and Ben Pershing for the Post, "compared with 15 in the last three months of 2009." The arrest of Greg Giusti for threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gotten particular attention.

Some have suggested the apparent surge is a matter of publicity, the Post story notes: members may be speaking out more publicly about threats. (That argument has come from a number of conservative blogs.) But the numbers reported by federal law enforcement officials seem to show a real upswing. How are liberal and conservative commentators taking this evidence? Liberals are inclined to blame right-wing rhetoric, and some argue we should avoid blowing threats out of proportion.

  • Greg Giusti and Fox News  The mother of Gregory Giusti, arrested for threatening Nancy Pelosi, says her son may have gotten some of his ideas from Fox News.  Keith Olbermann, looking at Fox coverage of health care reform, digs up a number of instances in which Fox commentators said Pelosi was ruining America and used language suggesting violence: Sarah Palin's "reload" comment and Glenn Beck talking of poisoning the speaker are his prime examples.

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  • Not Funny at All--Yet Sort of Funny  "Part of me," writes The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen, "finds a certain macabre humor in the absurdity of it all--there is no modern precedent for a group of American political activists becoming this violent in response to legislation they don't understand." He clarifies:

I'm not in a position to know the personal details of those responding violently to the Affordable Care Act, but given general demographic information, it's extremely likely that most of those turning to criminal behavior to express their outrage are also likely to benefit personally from the new law. There's just something extraordinary about right-wing extremists reacting violently to bogus arguments.

  • Why Members of Congress Should Fly Commercial  Charlotte Hays at the National Review has an unusual take on the rise in violence:
I don't condone this, of course, but I can't help wondering: What if our legislators had known in advance of that dastardly vote that that they would have to rub elbows with us? What if (heaven forfend!) Nancy Pelosi had to sit next to one of us on an airplane?
  • Lessons from History: Not As Bad As It Looks  At The Daily Beast, Matthew Dallek argues that a look at the 1960s "may offer a bit of comfort for today." That decade, too, saw an upswing in political violence. But while "the threats then had terrible consequences: From President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to the 1968 murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy; from Chicago police assaulting anti-war demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention, to the left-wing Weather Underground’s vision of overthrowing the U.S. government," the notion that society was coming apart at the seems proved to be false--the "dangers posed were overblown." Ultimately, our political system is quite "flexible," and managed to fold civil rights and Vietnam tensions into constructive policy.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.