We need leaders in civility

Excerpted from Wednesday's Miami Herald:

It's been obvious for some time that political discourse in this country has been coarsened by angry voices on the right and left, but recent outbursts of hostility have taken political differences to dangerous levels. Threats, expletives and vandalism have become weapons of choice for a few on the far ends of the political spectrum, crossing the line from legitimate opposition into criminal activity. It's gone far enough for the police and FBI to say they are investigating attacks and threats against members of Congress who voted for health care reform.

So far, the damage has been limited to property, and the name-calling has not resulted in any fistfights, but that's hardly a reason for comfort. There's a difference between free speech and hate speech with the potential to incite violence. Some political leaders and commentators either don't know the difference or are willfully ignoring the consequences of inflammatory speech and imagery.

It not only poisons the political environment but polarizes the debate and makes the underlying differences impossible to reconcile by conventional political means. Robust debate long has been a part of the American political tradition. In a time of increasing partisanship, though, elected leaders have a responsibility to exercise restraint. There is a difference between rallying the troops and inciting them to anger, and when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urges supporters on Twitter, "Don't retreat. Instead — RELOAD," it only makes matters worse.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has condemned the violence and threats as unacceptable and told supporters to "channel their anger into positive change." Other elected leaders also should make a strong and unequivocal commitment to civil discourse and should lead by example.