Saturday, October 11, 2008

Signs of Desperation

Photo by Flickr user gitboy, used under a Creative Commons license.

My Obama yard sign got stolen last night. This was the second one to disappear over the last ten days. I realize that the perps were probably drunken students. That doesn't excuse it. What people choose to do while drunk tends to correlate pretty closely to their values while sober.

And while I don't want to push a metaphor too hard, my pilfered yard signs also strike me as a sign of the times. This week, the presidential campaign turned nastier than I've ever seen, with John McCain and Sarah Palin portraying Barack Obama as an un-American terrorist lover. Even Karl Rove never went quite this far. It got ugly enough that a slew of conservatives are now saying the smears have gone too far.

Yesterday McCain finally tried to calm the mob his team has roused. He was booed by his own supporters for stating that Obama is a decent family man. I'm glad McCain showed us this flash of his own decency, but I worry it won't be enough.

I worry that all this public hating-on will embolden someone to take a shot at Obama. Literally.

It almost doesn't matter whether McCain and Palin are deliberately trying to incite violence, as Jeffrey Feldman suggested earlier this week. I don't suppose that Sarah Palin intended for a supporter to cry "Kill him!" after she linked Obama with former Weatherman Bill Ayers at a rally. It's just that hate speech, terrorist smears, and race-baiting have a way of spiraling out of control. This is how you prod a lynch mob into a frenzy. Even if a latter-day lynching isn't McCain and Palin's intent, violent reactions to such smears can be easily, easily anticipated by any reasonable person.

When their supporters break into open hostility and threats, McCain and Palin need to stop their stump speech and squelch them. Until yesterday, neither of them made an effort to do that. (Let's not forget that this has a longer history: Last winter, McCain didn't discourage his supporters from shouting sexist comments about Hillary Clinton, either.)

The German language has a great, largely untranslatable word for what's happening here: Hetzkampagne. The verb hetzen is used when you set the dogs on someone. It refers to agitation, baiting, hunting someone down. The term "smear campaign" doesn't quite capture Hetzkampagne, because there's no telling what will happen once the hounds of hell are turned loose.

Both McCain and Palin let those dogs smell blood last week. If the worst happened, blood would be on their hands too.

Is it a stretch from my stolen Obama signs to death threats? Sure. They're not the same. Thank goodness! Still, both are on a continuum of "dirty tricks to try when you're losing." They're both signs of the Republicans' desperation and disintegration. Once a candidate abandons civil discourse and fair play, his supporters seem to feel they've been given permission to break the rules and the law in ways large and small.

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