02/25/2011 04:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Broun: When Criticism Becomes Something More Sinister

As a Saudi national was about to be arrested for an alleged plot in Texas to assassinate former President Bush, and weeks after the horrible shooting spree that left 6 dead and a congresswoman seriously wounded, Georgia Congressman Paul Broun reportedly chuckled after a constituent asked, "Who's going to shoot Obama." He then stated:

The thing is, I know there's a lot of frustration with this president. We're going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we'll elect somebody that's going to be a conservative, limited-government president that will take a smaller, who will sign a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Only after a national firestorm and Secret Service attention to his constituent, did Broun's office state what the Congressman should have said at the time:

I deeply regret that this incident happened at all. Furthermore, I condemn all statements - made in sincerity or jest - that threaten or suggest the use of violence against the President of the United States or any other public official. Such rhetoric cannot and will not be tolerated.

Congressman Broun's initial mishandling of the event needs to be examined in context. He is not merely a harsh critic of the President. He is something more (or in this case less)--someone who demonizes and deligitimizes the democratically elected head of state, as someone who deserves not just disagreement, but suspicion or contempt, if not downright aggression.

On November 10, 2008 Broun had this to say about the President-elect's national service corps--an idea shared by President Bush:

That's exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it's exactly what the Soviet Union did. When he's proposing to have a national security force that's answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he's showing me signs of being Marxist.

Broun also stated. "I don't know" when asked whether or not President Obama was an American citizen or a Christian, but did opine that he is a Socialist. He also talked about how the President's policies would kill old people.

The Christian Science Monitor counted six incidents in the last year (I excluded Congresswoman Giffords attack by a deranged gunman) where politics turned into bona fide violence or threats. Broun apparently belongs to a political subgroup on the right (and there were those like it on the left against President Bush) that stoke the fires against the President not just on the merits or deficits of his policies, but rather on sheer demonization as well. Many conservatives, including Karl Rove, Rudy Guilliani and John McCain reject such tactics (See videos below). But other's like Broun embrace it. Broun only backtracks once he is exposed and the immediate political costs outweigh the benefits.

The problem is that when political leaders who should know better embrace exhortations to violence, "sucession," guns at town halls, "Second Amendment remedies," or bizarre tactical falsehoods like those of 9/11 truthers or birther conspiracists, they not only connect with their base, they green light extremists who see our elected officials and the institutions they inhabit as legitimate targets for contempt or even aggression. To be sure we must protect free speech, as the Supreme Court held in Terminiello v. Chicago, 373 U.S. 1 (1949), "a function of free speech under our system is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." Even at a time of great national division, when almost one in five folks say that both President Bush and Obama are, or could be the anti-Christ, elected officials should still responsibly stir constituents to action--even anger as part of an effort to make positive change. To be sure Conservatives have many important arguments that strike a chord with millions of Americans and those positions need to be fully examined in the marketplace of ideas. However, a Congressman who seemingly tolerates with a chuckle the assassination of our sitting head of state, does something else and should be condemned for it across the political spectrum.

Prof. Brian Levin on MSNBC "Hardball" with Chris Matthews, Feb. 25, 2011

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