The view from a target of hate

Friday, January 14, 2011; 7:00 PM

"You are a [expletive] idiot. Eat [expletive] and die. Happy New Year you brain dead maggot." - Jan. 1, 2011, 9:34 AM."

Welcome to my world.

The writer of the above e-mail denied my request for permission to identify and quote him in a future column. His quote appears without attribution, but his e-mail has been shared with Post officials. Asked in a follow-up e-mail why he sends hate mail, he wrote on Thursday: "Simply because you write drivel and incomprehensible stupid [expletive]. You work for the Washington Compost so go [expletive] yourself."

This world is not mine alone. I share it with others in the public eye. Regardless of our roles - political figures, pundits, activists of all stripes - if you are in any way conspicuous, you can expect to be on the receiving end of foul and abusive hate mail.

So what's new, you ask? Isn't vitriolic speech as American as apple pie? Yes. If I've learned anything after more than two decades in the opinion-writing business, it's that incivility comes with the territory.

The use, however, of invective and deliberately offensive language in responses to political opinion seems more prevalent today.

Driven by animosity, some readers, viewers and listeners now let fly with anything they believe could be hurtful to the recipient.

This kind of behavior should be distinguished from the coarsening of our public discourse that was on full display all week.

The tragedy in Tucson was an altogether different matter.

Within hours of last Saturday's mass shooting, politicians, pundits and hosts on talk radio and cable TV were heavy into the blame game, pointing fingers at each other for Jared Loughner's alleged rampage.

They knew little about Loughner. But that didn't stop them from claiming to understand Loughner's motives for destroying the lives of people who had done him no harm.

In the space of only a few days, we were told that Loughner was a left-winger because he liked the music of a group thought to be lefties; that he was a devotee of the right-wing publication American Renaissance; that he was a skinhead and a punk rocker.

He was deliberately linked to people and ideas that opposing sides disliked. It mattered not that evidence to support the assertions was thin or nonexistent. What mattered most was to score points against the other side.

If what we are learning now about Loughner is true, he is a very disturbed young man driven by demons within. That makes him as sick and disturbing as the ideologues who sought to exploit this tragedy for their advantage.

But the tone of public discourse is not my focus today. My concern is the near-fanatical hatred that drives some to privately launch profanity-laced, personal attacks on people with whom they disagree.

For me, it's not a matter of being thin-skinned or even fearful. I've been around too long to be either.

But the level of anger and vitriol that some people are carrying around ought to be worrisome in a society that depends on the free expression of ideas without the bombardment of threatening and abusive language.

Perhaps in this day and age, that's too much to ask. And so it is.

But Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate on Monday, said that if you passively accept a wrong, you are as much involved in it as the one who perpetrates it. If you accept the wrong without protesting it, King said, you are really cooperating with it.

Hate mail is harassment, and it's wrong.

But is it a one-way street? The New Year's Day e-mail writer ended his response on Thursday with a question: "Why do you write hateful articles about public figures?"

It's making me think.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company