I remember when I first realized that the decline of civility had become a death spiral.
The date was Jan. 20, 2009. Ted Kennedy, who was battling a brain tumor, collapsed at an inaugural luncheon - prompting many anonymous participants in our national conversation to rub their hands in glee and root for his death.
On the ABC News Web site, one commenter exclaimed, "Hot diggity damn! Maybe we're finally rid of him!" Another exulted, "And I thought nothing good would come of this day!"
But this was mere foreplay compared with the purrs of satisfaction that were posted online when Kennedy died seven months later. Many commenters were frankly giddy at the prospect that the late senator would dwell forever in a fiery climate.
On the Boston Globe site, a commenter wrote, "Burn, baby, burn!" On a blog sponsored by a prominent law professor, somebody wrote, "Good riddance to bad rubbish. The Kennedy's [sic] have always been socialists. I for one am glad to see another one of them pass into Lucifer's loving embrace." Somebody else chimed in, "The dude was pure evil and I'm all for dancing on his grave."
I'm all for free and unfettered expression, but we have clearly crossed a line somehow, somewhere. Anger is a natural emotion; it can even be a healthy emotion if channeled properly. But millions now seem to assume that an Internet connection is a license to indulge their most sociopathic impulses.
In our increasingly coarsened political culture, even death is being politicized. Apparently, it's now considered cool to rejoice at the demise of those with whom we disagree.
Some online correspondents are refreshingly sane, of course. After Kennedy died, there were sporadic attempts to admonish the death lobby.
One civil soul wrote on the Globe site, "Comments like theirs make me feel ashamed for America - that our way of life is producing values like theirs." Another lamented, "Politeness is a virtue that has all but vanished from our public discourse" and contended that "the extremist right wing, abetted by Fox News, is the principle reason for that. It's always the haters on the right-wing who are completely devoid of class and decorum."
Well, actually, that's totally wrong. People on the left do the death dance all the time.
When Rush Limbaugh was hospitalized with chest pains on Dec. 30, the left-leaning comment boards were jammed with celebrants:
"Garbage in, garbage out. Let him die."
"If he croaks, this is officially the greatest year in American history."
"Come on, 2009! Don't fail me now!"
And not all the trash-talkers were anonymous. Last spring, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, comic Wanda Sykes said of Limbaugh, "I hope his kidneys fail."
OK, she was joking, but the joke was symptomatic of our cultural illness. Incivility is rewarded; it's one big reason for Ann Coulter's success.
And the parameters of outrage expand inexorably. It's not enough anymore to be shrill, to call somebody an idiot, or a moron, or words not fit for a family newspaper. After those frontiers are crossed, what's left? Only the death wish.
For some anonymous liberals in 2007, it wasn't enough to assail Bush White House press secretary Tony Snow for his conservative views. When the news broke that his soon-to-be-fatal cancer had returned, commenters at several prominent liberal sites quickly posted their get-well-soon cards. For instance: "He is pure lying scum and should die ASAP!!" And: "The cancer in Tony Snow is removing the cancer of Tony Snow . . . could there be a god?"
Snow had a long track record as a broadcast commentator, which at least partly explained the antipathy. But when a veteran newswoman named Deborah Howell was fatally struck by a car while vacationing in New Zealand last New Year's Day, a number of conservatives celebrated online - even though they had never heard of her before the accident. When they learned that she had served a stint as the Washington Post's ombudsman and was married to a university president (who had witnessed the fatal accident), that was enough to label her a liberal - and therefore not worthy of respect in death. As one giddy patriot declared on the Politics Daily Web site, "One less of those anti-U.S. types to deal with."
Arguably, nobody in public life is more of a pro-U.S. type than a Marine Corps vet, but not even that designation could protect John Murtha during his final days. When the legendary Pennsylvania congressman was hospitalized for the last time earlier this month, well-wishers lined up to pay homage at Politico's Web site:
"Typical Democrat. Please die soon, Murtha."
"He and Benedict Arnold should share a very hot corner in a very bad place."
"Hear-hear! Is he dead yet?"
Abraham Lincoln, who dealt with hate daily, gave his fellow citizens this bit of advice: "In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity." His admonition seems just as sensible today, but we as a culture are more in sync with the likes of 50 Cent, the rapper who wrote the song "Death to My Enemies."
Extreme incivility cannot be prevented. All we can do is call it out in the name of civility. I just did. You should, too.