Perhaps it is because I can still remember watching Bobby Kennedy dying in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, reading about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., watching the replays of Hinckley gunning down Reagan, and, of course, San Francisco’s legacy with George Moscone and Harvey Milk, but I have always had a rather vigilante attitude towards attacks on public officials, real and perceived.
Just minutes ago, the shooting spree that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords brought those horrible memories to the fore yet again.
When I worked for Rep. Nancy Pelosi for seven years — before she was in leadership, before she received mandatory police protection — we would, as Rep. Giffords did, have public meetings. Rather than use Twitter or Facebook, we would send out postcards to every household in San Francisco, inviting them to various locations around the city.
It is part of every congressperson’s portfolio — going out there, in a no-holds-barred discussion on the important issues of the day. In the beginning, these meetings were held in a coffee-klatch type atmosphere, where we would sit and talk, finish up, shake hands, pose for photographs, and move on to our next location.
But as time wore on, as we moved into war in the Persian Gulf, the tenor of meetings began to change. Genuinely angry people would show up, the tenor of letters and phone calls (no e-mail back then) would become increasingly profane and threatening.
I began assuming a more defensive posture at these meetings and at all public events with the congresswoman. I ensured that members of the SFPD would be visible, but not too intrusive, at all our public meetings. I shifted my position from being seated amongst the attendees to standing or sitting behind or to the side of her, the better to scan the audience. There was more than one occasion that I would physically interpose myself between her and others, or lightly but firmly direct her away from people whose demeanor I wanted her to avoid.
For the last five years I worked for her — from 1991 to 1996 — I made a mental decision to add “bodyguard” to my list of duties as her national profile rose and, accordingly, the number of lunatics who contacted our office increased.
The proliferation of platforms for hate on cable, radio, where the anonymity of the Internet allows filth-spewing idiots (many of whom comment on this blog) to rage, has changed the political climate of this country. Now, as compared to when I started 20 years ago, it is okay to act like a common street thug on the media. Extremists aren’t censored — they get their own cable show, they create their own blogs and Internet sites, the more outrageous the better to find adherents and disciples that Jim Jones and David Koresh could have only dreamed of.
The shooting of Rep. Giffords comes after a year of congressional offices being vandalized, of death threats sent to members. Town hall meetings on health care were targeted last year for disruption. And, of course, just this week, a package with explosives was sent to Homeland Defense Secretary Janet Napolitano. More and more, something has gone awry in our culture, where destructive and deranged behavior has elevated itself to a point where mere anger finds an outlet in inappropriate and deadly means.
We don’t know for sure what the motives of this particular madman were. There will be many commentaries on the fact that this occurred in Arizona, an “open carry” state for firearms. There will be renewed arguments about the Second Amendment, gun control, etc. There will be a call to ensure that every member of Congress is protected by local or Capitol police when they go back to their districts.
But that is just window dressing for the real issue. And for the other innocent victims of this madman, our nation needs to understand that they are more than victims — they are martyrs, martyrs to a culture of hate speech and violence we have done little to stop. Because whatever the reason, we cannot ignore the fact that the current political climate is toxic beyond reason.
As we move from grieving to action, this nation’s political leaders and the media have to face the fact that giving national prominence to extremist speech is not an extension of liberty. Corporations who advertise on all public media — whether commercial broadcast, cable, radio, and all aspects of the Internet — need to take a stand.
Americans who believe in our Constitution, a Constitution that has stood for the peaceful transition of power for over 200 years, need to take a stand and withdraw support for programs and sites that support hate speech. Now. Because events like today’s seek to undermine the very republic upon which we stand.
Michael Yaki is an attorney and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He served as an aide to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and was an appointed and elected member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This article originally appeared on SFGate.com. The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.