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September 24, 2017

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Debate on health care in the U.S. is savaging civil discourse

Republican Congressman Joe Wilson broke new ground in the vociferous American health care debate last month. Shouting "liar" at President Obama during his health care speech to a joint session of Congress was a first. Legislators from both parties considered it unacceptable, but the outburst quickly brought more than one million dollars in contributions to Mr. Wilson's re-election fund.

Not to be outdone, Democrat Alan Grayson took to the House floor to say "If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly." Even if both of these Congressmen are right, is this the best America's elected representatives can do when arguing health care reform?

The debate in Congress might seem nauseating, but it is a model of civility compared to the venom and deceit spewed by some politicians, talk radio and the radical fringe on the Internet. The latest attack on civil discourse was a poll launched on Facebook that asked if President Obama should be assassinated. The choices on the poll were no, maybe, yes, and yes if he cuts my health care.

Facebook pulled the site off the Web and the Secret Service is investigating. Meanwhile, creation and exploitation of outrage are bringing big audiences to talk show hosts like Limbaugh, Beck and Hannity. Americans' obsession with reality show TV gives angry commentators and the radical fringe more public attention than they deserve.

The worrisome question is whether the media stars who capitalize on fear are inspiring crazies to act. To attack a policy position on its merits is entirely legitimate, but delegitimizing the president sends a message to the deranged in our violence-prone society that it is OK to consider assassinating him.

There is good reason to worry, because President Obama has been subjected to death threats ever since he announced his candidacy. The efforts to delegitimize him range from calling him Hitler to spurious claims about his birth and eligibility to be president.

Much of the malaise and outrage is based on misinformation and deceit designed to defeat any meaningful health care reform. Sarah Palin, the losing vice-presidential candidate, has been brilliant in exploiting fear with her pithy "Death Committees" accusation that President Obama's health plan "would install committees to decide who will receive life-saving care and who will be dispensed with."

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