WASHINGTON -- Not all overheated political rhetoric is alike. Delusional right-wing crazy talk -- the kind of ranting we've heard recently from washed-up rock star Ted Nugent and tea party-backed Rep. Allen West -- is a special kind of poison that cannot be safely ignored.
Let me be clear: I'm saying that the extreme language we hear from the far right is qualitatively different from the extreme language we hear from the far left -- and far more damaging to the ties that bind us as a nation. Tut-tutting that both sides should tone it down is meaningless. For all intents and purposes, one side is the problem.
Believe me, I would prefer not to dignify the ravings of Nugent or West by commenting on them. Nugent seems to be motivated by paranoia; West, perhaps by cynical calculation. It would be satisfying to withhold the attention they seek, but this is not an option. The only effective way to deal with bullies is to confront them.
Nugent, who delivered his foaming-at-the-mouth peroration at a National Rifle Association convention, earned a visit from the Secret Service with his promise that "if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year."
That might or might not constitute an actual threat to the president of the United States. More chilling, to me, was the way his audience of gun enthusiasts applauded in agreement as Nugent compared the Obama administration to a bunch of "coyotes in your living room" who deserve to be shot. Nugent ended by exhorting his listeners: "We are Braveheart. We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November. Am I -- any questions?"
No, I think he made himself quite clear.
Violent metaphors aside, the nub of Nugent's argument -- and I use the word advisedly -- was this: "If you can't go home and get everybody in your lives to clean house in this vile, evil, America-hating administration, I don't even know what you're made of."
Vile? Evil? America-hating? Nugent doesn't just characterize those with different political views as misguided or wrong. He seeks to paint them as alien and anti-American -- as enemies of this nation, rather than as citizens with whom he disagrees. In a subsequent interview, Nugent called Nancy Pelosi a "sub-human scoundrel" and referred to liberals as cockroaches to "stomp" in November.
This is what distinguishes the flame-throwers of the far right from those of the far left. Nugent and his ilk seek to deny their political opponents the very right to believe in a different philosophy. Agree with me, he says, or be stomped.
It would be one thing if this sort of vicious intolerance came only from aging rockers whose brains may have been scrambled by all those high-decibel performances. But it comes, too, from an elected member of the House of Representatives.
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group