Bill Clinton: ‘We Have To Keep The Bright Line Alive’

Politically motivated violence is nothing new in U.S. history, and fringe elements have advocated all sorts of policies. The key is for the nation at large to reject such violence, according to former president Bill Clinton.

Clinton traces such violence back to George Washington coming out of retirement after serving as president to command troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.

“Once in a while, over the last 200 years, we’ve crossed the line again. But by and large, that bright line has held, and that’s why this is the longest-lasting democracy in human history,” Clinton says. “That’s why there is so much free speech. That’s why people can organize their groups. It may seem like fringe groups that advocate whatever the livin’ Sam Hill they want to advocate. That’s why. But we have to keep the bright line alive.”

Clinton delivered his remarks last year at the Center for American Progress, on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, in which anti-government zealot Timothy McVeigh detonated a homemade bomb at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people.

The left-leaning Washington think tank reposted Clinton’s speech in the wake of the Saturday shooting in Arizona which left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) gunned down and fighting for her life in a Tucson hospital.

A note with the repost reads, “We have reposted the speech because its guidance provides a way to think critically about why such incidents happen and what we must learn from them.”

‘Feeling Secure In The Face of Insecurity’

Clinton also describes the more-contemporary factors fueling the anger in the country and the rise of the conservative tea party movement, including the continuing poor economy and the growth of income inequality in the United States.

“Before the economic crisis, which began on September the 15th, 2008, with the failure of Lehman Brothers, after inflation, median income in America was – for families – was $2,000 a year lower than it was when I left office,” the 42nd president says.

“Ninety percent of the gains of the last decade went to only 10 percent of us, 43 percent to 1 percent of us. That’s profoundly disorienting. Once again, where more people were working harder for less,” he adds. “And now, we have the highest percentage of Americans who’ve been out of work for six months or more we’ve had in decades. This is disorienting. And people are looking for anchors to make life simple and understandable, and adjustable again, and sometimes with the idea that they need to go back to an idyllic time that never existed.

“That’s a big part of the explanation for this anti-immigration law that Arizona just passed; or the idea that we ought to bring back Confederate month in Virginia without talking anything about slavery; or the idea that you ought to be able to pack a loaded six-gun into a Starbucks and order a cowboy latte,” Clinton says. “All of this is really about, where do you feel oriented walking through the day – how to feel secure in the face of insecurity; how to feel ordered in the face of chaos.”

Despite such hardships, however, there remains a line that Americans should not cross, to prevent “debate veer[ing] so far into hatred that we lose focus of our common humanity,” and that imposes a responsibility on all U.S. political leaders, Clinton argues.

“It’s really important. We can’t ever fudge the fact that there is a basic line dividing criticism from violence or its advocacy. And the closer you get to the line, and the more responsibility you have, the more you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate,” he says.

“Look, criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. Nobody’s right all the time. But Oklahoma City proved once again that, beyond the law, there is no freedom. And there is a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedom and the public servants who implement them,” Clinton says. “And the more prominence you have in politics or media or some other pillar of life, the more you have to keep that in mind.”

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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