Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric: Silly Season or Scary Season?

Imagine how you feel after a long transcontinental flight: jet-lagged to the gills, and overwhelmed by sheer exhaustion. Now multiply that by three months or so, and you get a sense of what our politicians are contending with: sheer exhaustion from the long race to acquire, or hold on to, public office. It has to take its toll – or at least, that’s the most charitable explanation for some recent, regrettable remarks about immigrants and border security.

In one case, Georgia State Representative John Yates told a candidate forum that the National Guard “ought to be armed and if warned leaflets dropped all over Mexico says that we will shoot to kill if anybody crosses and be serious about this and if they do that then there won’t be anybody killed.” Yates clarified his remarks, saying “Stopping Hitler was worth the price. It’s our border, they’re invading us.” (See Georgia Lawmaker Defends ‘Shoot to Kill’ Comment, by George Franco, 15.Oct.2010, Fox 5 News, Atlanta.)

Not to be outdone, Alaska’s GOP Senate candidate, Joe Miller, was asked about illegal immigration at a recent town hall meeting, and replied that “The first thing that has to be done is to secure the border,” adding that “East Germany was very, very able to reduce the flow. Now, obviously, other things were involved. We have the capacity to, as a great nation, secure the border. If East Germany could, we could.” (See Joe Miller: Communist East Germany a Model for Border Security, by Stephanie Condon, CBS News, Political Hotsheet, 19.Oct.2010.) According to CBS News, “following the same town hall meeting, a reporter for the Alaska Dispatch was handcuffed and detained by private security guards working for Miller while trying to ask Miller a question.”

Pundits like to call election season the “silly season,” but that goes wide of the mark, and trivializes the political process. When politicians make outlandish statements, we should ask serious questions about whether they really meant what they said, whether expressly or by implication. Should “shoot to kill” really be our answer to the problems on our southwestern border? Leaving aside the inaptness of Mr. Miller’s comparison – East Germany, after all, shot to kill to keep people IN – would we ever want to follow East Germany’s example in anything, particularly their blood-soaked methods of border enforcement?

Regardless of whether these offensive statements are the product of mere exhaustion and disinhibition, or of carefully-considered political strategy, they are on the far side of the line that divides civil discourse from hate-mongering, and one hopes that their party superiors will advise them to cease and desist. Otherwise, pundits would be justified in calling the waning weeks of the campaign cycle “the scary season… .”

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