Faced with rising anger against ideological zealots who have turned the murderous atrocity in Arizona into a political circus, President Obama had to respond. In an excellent speech eulogizing the six dead and paying respect to the critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Obama appealed to the nation to cool down and stop the nonsense. His signature line was: "What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other."
Unfortunately, his words came too late.
The struggle for political dominance in this country is now so intense that scorched earth is the order of the day. The left is furious that the progressive agenda is failing. The right believes it is on the cusp of losing traditional America and must take drastic measures to save the Republic. In the middle of all this is a relatively inexperienced liberal-thinking president who often looks stunned by the vitriol directed toward him.
There is no question that with the rise of the Internet, where anonymous bloggers can level the vilest accusations, the political debate has changed for the worse. No longer is the smartest guy in the room awarded the trophy. Now, the accolades often go to smear merchants who delight in personal attacks and injurious invective.
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But when a federal judge, a sitting congresswoman and a 9-year-old girl hit the floor riddled with bullets, you would think the nasty rhetoric might be shelved for a couple of days to allow for grieving.
You would think.
Americans well understand what has happened, and they are outraged by irresponsible pundits blaming their political enemies for contributing to the murders. Obama must know that things are getting out of control and that he must begin calling people out. The problem is that some of the president's most ardent supporters are responsible for the current madness. So Obama kept his criticism generic and avoided specificity, to the vast relief of The New York Times.
The question now becomes whether the public will walk away from the guttersnipes -- and I'm betting "no" on that. The easy and provocative stimulation provided by the Net has numbed some folks. What used to be outrageous is now commonplace. Standards of behavior in political analysis are gone and will not come back unless viewers, listeners and readers demand it. And why should they? After all, it is far more entertaining to hear trash talk than civil discourse.
Of course, there are times when bad guys need to be confronted in tough ways. Villains must be called out in no uncertain terms, and robust debate can be a very good thing if facts are used to illuminate harmful situations. But using death to fan speculative defamation should be unacceptable in a noble country. That is rock bottom.
President Obama did a service to the nation by asking people to stop hurting each other with irresponsible words. He is now on the record decrying the ideologues who are damaging the country. Critical mass has been reached.
Veteran TV news anchor Bill O'Reilly is host of the Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor."