When Hate Wins

The people's fury has been unleashed and it isn't pretty. During this past week we've witnessed outbursts of hatred and name-calling at presidential rallies as intense economic pressures mount and when people feel heightened insecurity about their future. We all have a stake in how this plays out. The task is to draw the line on hatred and name-calling -- and this goes for supporters of both candidates. Hatred and name-calling are insidious. They seep into our public discourse, sometimes without us fully realizing it, until they hit us on the head and demand our attention. What occurred this past week at McCain/Palin rallies was deeply troubling. Unseemly supporters called Senator Barack Obama an Arab, accused him of being a terrorist, and shouted "kill him" and "off with his head." In Virginia, the Republican state party chair continually referred to Obama as "Hussein," an obvious ploy to make people fear the candidate.

Rhetoric from supporters on both sides can get overheated these days. And while the insults and denigration heaped on Palin by those who believe her unqualified to be VP are not as troublesome or hate-filled as those exhorting violence against Senator Obama, they do force each of us to consider whether we're willing to take a stand against such acrimony and divisiveness. Criticism is one thing, denigrating someone is something else.

Ultimately, at one rally last week, McCain grabbed the microphone from a supporter, a woman who said Obama was an Arab and declared that Obama is a "good and decent man." But was this too little, too late? I don't think so. Everyone's attention is now fixed on the campaign, and there is no better time to take on such hate-filled, name-calling.

I hasten to add that Obama has done more in this regard than McCain. Recall when news broke that Palin's daughter was pregnant; Obama was quick to step forward to say family issues were off limits. Or, just the other day, in response to McCain stepping forward and drawing the line with his supporters, Obama thanked McCain for the "reminder that we can disagree while still being respectful of each other."

But my point is bigger than any one incident or single week of campaigning. We all know that people are rip-roaring mad about the state of the economy, not to mention politics and public life writ large. They feel increasingly insecure about their economic condition, and they worry about the direction of the nation. It is in moments like these that overheated rhetoric that starts as a small brush fire can ignite into a raging blaze.

There are special moments in public life when lines need to be drawn. This is one of those times. Both candidates, and their campaigns and surrogates, must step forward and demonstrate a different kind of political debate for the good of the nation and our people. They must speak out loudly against hatred and name-calling. They must speak directly and unequivocally.

We all know when candidates speak in veiled terms either to strike fear in people's hearts or to give lip service to some pressing issue. Now is the time to discard both these tactics, and to prevent hate and name-calling from spreading, even winning.

The candidates must start today, and then they should speak directly to this challenge in their debate on Wednesday, and then continue thereafter. You and I must also be part of this: keep track of what you say to people about the opposing side and their supporters, and see if you are adding to current conditions. It is by word of mouth that positive and negative conditions spread in society. In each election, each side wants to win. But, no matter the outcome, hate and name-calling should find no hiding place in our society.