Dept. of Cheap Shocks

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sure, we were all disturbed by last week's video of a student hectoring John Kerry and then getting Tasered by cops as he yelped "Don't Tase me, bro!" But let's keep it in perspective: Had Dick Cheney been at the lectern, that kid wouldn't be alive.

Most politicians favor the Tasering of annoying constituents. When they look out upon an audience, they see a target-rich environment. During a speech, Hillary Clinton will scan a crowd and mentally compile a list of who should be taken down, and in what order, and by what method. President Bush never gives a speech unless his guards are standing by with flamethrowers. One heckle will get you a warning; the second heckle and you're toast.

The iconic image of free speech is a painting by Norman Rockwell. It shows a lean, hardworking man speaking up at a town meeting. What Rockwell didn't show is the phalanx of police officers who at any second are going to flatten this idiot and Taser him.

Balancing a citizen's right of personal expression with a politician's right to be free of nuisances is one of the fundamental tensions of our democracy. The savvy politician will always place the audience microphone directly above a trap door. The moment you say, "I have a multi-part question," you're going down.

What our public officials need is a nuanced approach to dealing with constituents who don't know when to shut up. What we need, fundamentally, is a better Taser.

Instead of a Taser that's set on "stun," we need one with a "logic" setting, so that when you fire the dart into the noisome nitwit, he suddenly starts to make sense. We need a "concision" setting that helps the yapper get to the point. And finally, we need a "befuddle" setting for those dicey situations when the speaker has no plausible answer to a tough question and needs the audience to be Tased and confused.

I'm sure you agree. You better.

-- Joel Achenbach

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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