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Putting out the flames

Friday, March 26, 2010; A24

"WE DISAGREE with the charge made by Rep. Cantor today that Democrats are using acts of violence for political gain," Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Thursday. He was referring to Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), a Republican leader in the House, who said that Democratic leaders are taking political advantage of reports of vandalism and death threats against Democrats who voted for the health-reform bill. Democrats who blame the rhetoric of GOP leaders for such acts, Mr. Cantor said, are "dangerously fanning the flames."

Not long before Mr. Woodhouse responded, we happened to see an e-mail that former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe sent out on behalf of Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), whose brother had a propane gas line severed at his Charlottesville home Tuesday. "Sarah Palin has set her sights on Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello -- literally," Mr. McAuliffe wrote. "She actually posted an image on the Internet that shows a gun sight centered on his district. . . . Click here to make a contribution to Tom's campaign . . . "

Acts of vandalism such as that committed at the home of Mr. Perriello's brother, or the bullet fired through a window of Mr. Cantor's campaign office, or bricks heaved through plate glass doors at other legislators' offices -- these are inexcusable. They should be condemned and, more to the point, investigated and prosecuted as the crimes that they are.

And political leaders, at all times, but especially in an era of rising partisanship and political fever, should think twice before employing inflammatory rhetoric. Ms. Palin, who did indeed post a map with gunsights over 20 districts with Democratic House members she would like to defeat and who tweeted "Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD," ought to be able to express her enthusiasm without resorting to hunting metaphors.

But blaming politicians for the acts of followers whom they don't control is also a risky game, and partisans are entitled to express strong views without being accused of inciting violence. Happily, both parties' leaders in the House have had sensible responses. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told Fox News on Wednesday, "I know many Americans are angry over this health-care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren't listening. But, as I've said, violence and threats are unacceptable. That's not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change. Call your congressman, go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign, make your voice heard -- but let's do it the right way."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, repudiated the blame game. "All who participate in our freedom of expression should not be painted with the same brush," Ms. Pelosi said, later adding, "I don't subscribe to the fact that these acts of violence sprang from any words of my colleagues."

Those are the right sentiments. If we could make one wish, it would be for Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Boehner -- and their counterparts in the Senate, and at the heads of each party -- to repeat these messages together, from one podium. They could show the nation that profound political difference is not the same as personal enmity, and that political opponents can share a commitment to civility over one-upmanship.

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