06/14/2010 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Congressmen Attack

Presumably by now you've seen the video of Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) getting into a physical confrontation with someone purporting to be a student asking questions about Etheridge's positions on the president's political agenda. If not, why don't you watch it right now. I'll wait.

The talking points here ask questions like: why isn't the interviewer willing to identify himself? Is he an RNC operative? Is this an ambush interview designed to discredit Etheridge? Is this part of a plot to score political points?

Let me make this really simple: I don't care.

I don't. I don't care if it's a Republican operative--congressmen shouldn't assault Republican operatives. I don't care if it's an ambush interview--congressmen shouldn't attack ambush interviewers. I don't care if it's the ghost of Richard Nixon, foaming at the mouth rabid and wearing nothing but a placard accusing Etheridge of being of questionable parentage. No matter who this is, Etheridge doesn't have the legal right to put hands on him for asking a question.

Some people are trying to deflect blame by questioning the motives of the would-be interviewer, as if the law of assault was a complicated moral issue. It isn't, by the way. It's a simple moral issue. If someone asks you a question, you don't get to start grabbing him or her. Asking whether the questioner has some political motive is as morally bankrupt as asking what specifically Tina Turner said to Ike before he started hitting her--as if there were any answer that would suddenly make the conduct okay.

And Etheridge should know better. He purports to know better, even as he casts aspersions on the questioner's political motives:

"I have seen the video posted on several blogs. I deeply and profoundly regret my reaction and I apologize to all involved. Throughout my many years of service to the people of North Carolina, I have always tried to treat people from all viewpoints with respect. No matter how intrusive and partisan our politics can become, this does not justify a poor response. I have and I will always work to promote a civil public discourse.

I'd like to take Etheridge at his word, but it's hard to accept that he has always worked to promote a civil public discourse, considering he just grabbed someone by the neck for asking if he supported Obama's political goals. So, with all due respect to Etheridge, I'm inclined not to give him the benefit of the doubt. I am inclined to believe the person asking the question is genuinely a student working on a student project until I find out otherwise. (Gee, I can't imagine why the questioner would blur his face, considering people are bending over backwards to blame him for having the audacity to get grabbed.)

But if we do find out otherwise, I hope we can all remember the basic lesson that the conduct is fundamentally wrong. I want to believe our politics are not so partisan that we will excuse physical attacks if we think the victim had an ideological motive for being at the scene of the event.