When people allow themselves to be overwhelmed by fear things usually get crazy.
Sadly, such is the case concerning Health Care reform.
During a series of town hall meetings around the country last week, members of Congress have been jeered, shouted-down, and threatened with death. Many of the protesters have been ginned up by pundits and political organizations:
Sean Hannity: "Become part of the mob!" read a banner on his Web site.
Rush Limbaugh: "Adolph Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate."
A Web site called Tea Party Patriots instructed their followers to "Yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early... Stand up and shout and sit right back down."
And former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote in a statement on Facebook:
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide... Such a system is downright evil."
In looking at the results to the Walter H. Capps Center's Post-Election poll that I took part in last November when asked, what the most important, actionable issues were for the next president and congress, the third highest write-in response, behind "Fixing the economy," and "Ending the war in Iraq" was "Fix healthcare... availability for all."
Despite differences in how to go about this, one fact that is not in dispute is that health care costs will rise to unsustainable levels unless something is done.
But this commentary is not about the pros and cons of the health care debate. That's politics. This is about the ethics of a "debate" which has deteriorated into an Us vs. Them shouting match.
What's particularly troubling is how easily people can get stirred up by fear, show up at a meeting designed to have an honest dialog and then proceed to disrupt and proclaim "their rights." Most of those that I witnessed in news clips seemed to have forgotten the corresponding responsibilities that go with those rights. Many demonstrated something akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater.
How can you hear the answers to questions if everyone is shouting? And what kind of message does this send to our kids: that if you don't like what someone says, it's okay to bully, badger or shout them down?
We're better than that.
I don't know how the health care debate will end. There's no doubt that there is genuine public concern. This is a complex issue and there are no easy answers. What I do know is that we won't be able to succeed in fixing anything through misinformation, shout-downs and hate speech.
More communication is needed. Greater clarity needs to be brought forth by the president. He and Congress both need to listen and learn the genuine concerns by Americans. Americans, in turn, need to communicate those concerns in a reasonable, rational manner. Shouting is neither reasonable nor rational.
After a reasoned debate and thoughtful working from both parties, I would like to see the president and a small bi-partisan group of Senators hold a town hall meeting to clearly lay out their plans for reform.
In last November's poll, one of the top qualities likely voters said was important for the next president was a "clear vision to unify the country." In the final analysis, this might be Mr. Obama's greatest challenge. But we bear some of the responsibility for this too.
We need rational rhetoric not irrational fear-mongering. Many of us need to stop allowing ourselves to be stirred up by hate-filled, demagogic rhetoric and start examining the pros and cons by reading and discussing the specifics of any bill with friends, neighbors and colleagues.
"Asked by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer in February," wrote Time magazine (July 6, 2009) "if he did not feel burdened by the several crises now besetting the country, Obama noted that the moment 'is full of peril but full of possibility' and that such times are 'when the political system starts to move effectively.'"
Last week has shown us the peril. Mr. Obama needs to show us the possibility; a possibility that will move us from fear to faith.
Jim Lichtman has been writing and speaking on ethics since 1995. You can read more commentaries on his Web site, www.ethicsStupid.com.