Last Friday, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia was at a town hall meeting when a constituent asked him, “Who will shoot Obama?” Rather than confronting the call to violence, Broun—who has his own history of incendiary remarks— laughed it off, and answered, “The thing is, I know there’s a lot of frustration with this president… Hopefully, we’ll elect somebody that’s going to be a conservative.”
Today, after a national outcry made it impossible for him to sweep the incident under the table, Broun issued a full apology, saying, “I condemn all statements — made in sincerity or jest — that threaten or suggest the use of violence against the President of the United States or any other public official. Such rhetoric cannot and will not be tolerated.”
Broun was right to apologize, however belatedly. But his apology doesn’t erase what has become a troubling habit among many Republican members of Congress: choosing to ignore—and thereby tacitly embracing—lies and conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birth, religion, and love of country. Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner led the way when he refused to publically correct members of his base who believe that Obama is a secret Muslim who is illegally serving as president, stating, “I can’t tell Americans what to think.” Progressives called him out for his slippery response, but he ultimately got away with his convenient non-denial.
Broun himself has fed conspiracy theories about the president, saying that Democrats want to take over “all of society,” and even comparing the president to Hitler. Unfortunately, he’s hardly alone in his sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle embrace of extreme rhetoric.
Elected officials spend a lot of time talking with, and trying to be polite to, people who they may or may not agree with, and they certainly shouldn’t be held responsible for the views of every person who they happen to be in the room with. But elected officials do have the responsibility to operate honestly and responsibly—and that means correcting clear lies and confronting clear calls to violence.
Broun was rightly criticized for his failure to immediately condemn a call to assassinate the president. But when will he and his fellow members of Congress stop stoking the suspicion and fear that leads to such calls in the first place?