Hate Stirs Rise in Political Death Threats

How ugly has political rhetoric become? Even the New Jersey Teachers Union has gotten into the act, with a "joking" prayer for the budget-cutting governor's death.

All the violent rhetoric has produced an ugly dividend: There has been a threefold increase in death threats against congressional leaders during the first three months of 2010, according to the Senate sergeant-at-arms. Among the 42 incidents recorded by federal law-enforcement officials, there have been arrests made in the highest profile cases, including threats against Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Republican House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.

While some threats have come via voicemail (Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Congresswoman Ginny Brown Waite), fax (Rep. Bart Stupak) and even telephonic prayer (Pastor Wiley Drake's imprecatory ill-wishes against the 219 congressional Dems who voted for health care), the Internet is increasingly the vehicle for these threats, giving the illusion of anonymity while making them easier to trace. It's a breeding ground where hate mates with stupid and the results stick around for everyone to see.

It’s like Jersey Shore hadn’t done enough to hurt the Garden State’s reputation.

But the latest foray into the digital fringe came from an unsettling source—the New Jersey Teachers Union.

Here's what an email from Bergen County teachers union president Joe Coppola to 17,000 of his brethren said:

"Dear Lord, this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays... . I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor."

This pop-culture imprecatory prayer is tasteless on several levels, which was essentially Coppola's defense—that it was a joke that reflected poor judgment and was never meant to be seen by the public. But once you hit send, or post on a Facebook page, it's public whether you like it or not.

For a nation generally more preoccupied with whether President Obama is America's political savior or the Antichrist, this unexpected bit of ugliness from the Garden State might need some explanation. The short answer is that it all comes down to money. The longer answer is that it might be a sign of fights yet to come in a statehouse near you.

New Jersey's newly elected Republican Governor Chris Christie is trying to close a $10.7 billion budget gap without raising taxes in a recession (by some measures, New Jersey is the highest-taxed state in the nation). Part of his plan involves cutting $820 million from education on top of a statewide public employee pay-freeze. This amounts to a 5 percent cut per school district.

Not surprisingly, members of the teachers' union are displeased. They're being pushed by the White House to accept merit pay, and popular pressure for non-unionized charter schools is on the rise. At the same time, citizens are getting wise to the fact that disproportionate public sector union pension benefits are driving deficits in a growing number of states. While federal stimulus funds provided a budget band-aid last year, the underlying dynamic is unsupportable and hasn't changed. California, here we come.

You might assume that teacher's protests would be relatively high-brow, avoiding low-blow insults, hyperpartisan hysteria, and comparisons to genocidal dictators. But you'd be wrong.

Amid the voluminous postings at the 60,000+ fan Facebook group called "New Jersey Teachers United Against Governor Chris Christie's Pay Freeze" you can find all of the above.

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Here's an instant classic from Camden County Vocational and Technical High School biology teacher Marlene Brubaker, as uncovered by PolitickerNJ's Wally Edge: "KingKrisKristy is copying from another famous dictator: Pol Pot, who got rid of teachers and intellectuals and turned the population against them. NJ has its own Khmer Rouge, it's your Legislature." The KKK formulation of "KingKrisKristy" was no accident, as a subsequent post by Brubaker made clear: "Your legislature is full of KKK's yes-men. They bow to his will. They all need to be kicked out of office. I always called NJ the 'Nazi state' I used to be joking."

Trolling around the pages, I found the Nazi comparisons continued. Here's one from Shirlane Kirschbaum Yannuzzi: "Just as Hitler blamed the Jews for the economic situation, Christie is blaming us."

And because dehumanizing your opponents is a time-honored tradition of mobocracy, here is Tom Guarisco's considered opinion: "If Christe shit was a bug.... I would step on him 100 times... He's too fat to be stepped... So i guess i would torture him with RAID......"

The fat jokes continued, with plenty of descriptions of the governor as a "Fat Fuck," an impulse that sometimes got dressed up as scientific analysis, as with this comment from Dennie Anderson Davenport: "fyi, there is research that correlates body size with brain size i.e more obese people tend to have a smaller brain. Documented Dr. Daniel Amen 'Change your life, change your brain.'" Dennie was decent enough to follow up with a dose of perspective to her fellow posters, "It doesn't make us look good to use name-calling as a technique, however."

It's like Jersey Shore hadn't done enough to hurt the Garden State's reputation.

In any large group, you are likely to find some kooks, as the Tea Party organizers are fond of pointing out defensively. And these extremes are not indicative of the whole tone on the Facebook page. But teachers are paid to set an example, both in and out of the classroom.

The larger issue is the relentlessly ugly tone that is infusing our politics. We are being fed a steady diet of incitement, and the extremes end up encouraging and echoing each other. When political opponents are seen as sworn enemies, mob mentality starts to set in, and the worst may be yet to come.

Update: This article initially stated the threefold increase in death threats against congressional leaders was in 2009; it has been corrected to 2010.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.