"Do not start a civil war."
That simple statement was toward the top of about a hundred comments on my article breaking the infamous "finger-biting incident" that took place in Thousand Oaks last September, and it stuck with me.
The story of violence that broke out between protesters on opposite sides of the emotional health care reform issue occupied much of the news cycle that day, and while there's been many other violent clashes between protesters, nothing captured the tense mood of the country quite so succinctly as what happened in our quiet county.
Political tensions haven't been this high in my lifetime. People are scared and suffering, sweeping changes are taking place at home and abroad and there is great distrust among opposing political participants.
Believe it or not, some that left comments on my post argued with the one that cautioned against a civil war, saying that it was needed, or that the victim got what he deserved. Consider these:
"They are going to start the war for us. If you're afraid to fight, I understand. But a fight there will be."
"They drew first blood. Let's draw the last. You have to hate your enemy to win the war."
"The political class has already declared war on the American people. It's just that the shooting hasn't started yet."
Don't delude yourself into thinking that the bloodlust isn't on both sides. Just like with the finger-biting incident, both sides were at fault. Although this wasn't apparent right away (I was prevented by Sheriffs from interviewing the other side the night of the incident) I updated my original article to say so as soon as I confirmed it, and I told the John and Ken Show the next day that the four-fingered man threw the first punch.
These are eventful times, and a high degree of sensitivity should be exercised when addressing the topic of political violence, and that's the purpose here today.
Before Carly Fiorina and Steve Poizner descended on Thousand Oaks last Friday, I wrote a pointed article about the Democratic Party's organization of a protest at the venue where they were to speak. I said that they planned to "disrupt" the forum--a word choice to which the Democrats strongly objected because they felt that it has a violent connotation.
At first, I chalked up their objection to political posturing, because to me that word does not contain such a connotation. I used it in the sense that if a hundred protesters showed up in the lobby of the Thousand Oaks Inn that was already packed with guests of the Conejo Valley Republican Women and the candidates and staff they invited, the proceedings would be disrupted. It didn't even occur to me that it might be construed that they might be flipping over tables or attacking anybody, so I argued back and forth with the Democrats for a few days, essentially saying that they were being silly and reaching for things to criticize about my post.
Then I stepped back from the discussion and tried to see it from their point of view. In light of the fact that the most infamous case of recent protest violence occurred just a few months ago and less than a mile away from where the Democrats were to hold their protest, I can see why they would be sensitive to the word "disrupt." It's just ambiguous enough to where a follow-up post was warranted to give all sides an opportunity to condemn all forms of violence and promote civil discourse, and we can do our small part to help diffuse the tensions that fray the bonds that join us.
Had I been a little more sensitive to the situation when I wrote the article, I would have used the word "discombobulate" instead of "disrupt." The Democrats that went to the protest had no intention of causing any harm.
One of the protesters was Brian Leshon, the chair of the communications committee of his party.
"I am always telling the people on our side to steer clear of situations that can lead to confrontation," he remarked. "We always tell our constituents prior to a rally not engage in a street corner debate with the opposition; we are not going to change their minds and they are not going to change ours; we are there to talk to the general public to convince them to adopt our positions. If you get into it with opposition you risk escalation, which is not kind of press we want and you will lose in the court of public opinion."
Some of my more conservative readers might find it disconcerting to read such a well-reasoned and responsible statement from a member of the opposing party, and I'm sure some Democrats would be shocked to learn how civil are the vast majority of the tea party protesters.
Carla Bonney, a mother of nine, organizes the largest tea party rallies in Ventura County. She remembers what she told a group of about 75 protesters she led about how to interact with the opposition, and how difficult of a task it is to maintain order during the heat of opposing demonstrations.
"I told them not to respond back, and to ignore them," she said. "The first thing I did when someone got wild was to respond back strongly. I was not cussing or anything unruly. I kept eye contact and I held my ground. I didn't get angry. I was firm and committed and made my point. When I became bored, I left. But I had to laugh, as I broke my first rule immediately upon arrival."
She did what we all should do--she stayed composed and she engaged her opponent intellectually.
And that's what this is all about. I probably disagree with Brian Leshon on 90 percent of the issues, but we both agree that if we good-naturedly debate, without shouting each other down, that the best arguments will stand out in the marketplace of ideas. And during the discussion, we might learn that our opponents aren't bad people and they aren't stupid. God forbid, you might even see things from their point of view, as I did with the word "disrupt," and some progress might occur.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the verbal violence that infects political discussion--perhaps it is just as destructive as the physical kind because it is far more prevalent. I'm confident that anyone reading this has witnessed or participated in a discussion where one or both of the sides was injured with vicious ad-hominem attacks, where personal invective was used as a substitute for rational arguments. Such tactics are designed to silence or even destroy the opposition, and everyone is harmed by it. Few groups are victimized by this vitriol as much as conservatives of late, but neither side is stranger to it. I hope in the weeks and months ahead, we can all refuse to participate in verbal violence in the same manner we have united to condemn actual violence today.