McCain and Palin have turned a dark corner in their election rhetoric, and as many others have said, they are creating real danger.
They are actively encouraging the notion that Barack Obama may secretly be a danger to America, a friend to terrorists, a terrorist himself. This goes beyond political slurs. It is the language that the violent use to justify their violence. Obama is being presented as someone who poses a danger, someone whom the violent need to harm in "self-defense." And it only takes a few weak minds to accept the paranoid fantasy and act on it.
McCain has already gone beyond the acceptable bounds of American political discourse. And he has done it at a moment of national unrest, as the economic crisis creates fear and anxiety. A historical moment like this would be dangerous enough without McCain. The risk of mob violence would be with us now even if McCain were not actively increasing it. During times of uncertainty, mobs look for scapegoats to turn on. McCain has chosen to offer the public identifiable scapegoats.
I am afraid, not only for Obama but for his Secret Service detail, for Obama's volunteers in the field, for the staff at ACORN (who are being demonized every day), for Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank, whom McCain has now explicitly accused of crimes (as "willing co-conspirators" in the failure of our banking sector). I hope no harm comes to anyone. But I dread what may happen if some angry hooligans pass an Obama field office twenty minutes after Palin has told them that Obama wants to destroy the country.
If the fire McCain that is playing with actually catches, if people are burned, there will be enormous grief and enormous rage. And if something terrible happens, few of us will be able to think clearly about those responsible. So it's time to think the worst-case scenario through now.
If McCain's campaign actually incites the violence it is so close to inciting, his political career needs to end. That day. Not simply his lost campaign, but his Senate career, his speaking engagements, his public life. He needs to resign in disgrace, and he needs to be made to see that necessity.
There cannot be violent retribution for the merchants of violence, if we want to keep our America America. And laws regulating campaign speech will go horribly wrong. But the political retribution must be swift, complete and unrelenting.
No politician who undermines public safety for personal gain has any place in our national life. Every politician should fear an outbreak of civil violence against his or her fellow Americans; who can speak of loving our country but not dread that? If mere patriotism, mere responsibility, mere human decency are not enough, politicians must fear for themselves and their careers. Every American politician should live in holy dread of inciting a mob, and every politician should know that raising a mob and losing control of it means exile from American politics forever.
God forbid that any of my fears come to pass. I hope McCain will think better of what he is doing, and stop. I hope that we will get through the coming month in peace. But if the worst happens, McCain must leave public office, Palin must leave public office, and Steve Schmidt, their campaign strategist, must never be employed in politics or government again. And steps need to be taken, calmly and rationally, to ensure those outcomes: a new public organization, including a political action committee and a fund-raising arm, aimed at removing those malefactors from office, and at deterring any future politician from taking such depraved risks with the public safety.
Words have consequences, and John McCain has a public trust. A politician who becomes an enemy of the civil peace needs to be punished, not by more violence and not by the law, but by the patriotism of his fellow Americans.