Yesterday Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein accused Joe Lieberman of being "willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people" after the Connecticut senator scuttled a health care reform compromise (my emphasis):
The Huffington Post and Roll Call are both reporting that Joe Lieberman notified Harry Reid that he will filibuster health-care reform if the final bill includes an expansion of Medicare...
Lieberman was invited to participate in the process that led to the Medicare buy-in. His opposition would have killed it before liberals invested in the idea. Instead, he skipped the meetings and is forcing liberals to give up yet another compromise. Each time he does that, he increases the chances of the bill's failure that much more. And if there's a policy rationale here, it's not apparent to me, or to others who've interviewed him. At this point, Lieberman seems primarily motivated by torturing liberals. That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.
The Washington Post's Charles Lane objected to Klein's language:
Let me repeat: Klein essentially accuses Lieberman of mass murder because he disagrees with him on a policy issue about which there is considerable debate among people of good will across the political spectrum.
This is disgusting, and pretty illogical, too. Klein brandishes a study by the Urban Institute showing that the lack of health insurance contributed to the deaths of 137,000 people between 2000 and 2006. But last time I checked, Joe Lieberman does not oppose insuring everyone. Indeed, he is on record favoring "legislation that expands access to the millions who do not have coverage, improves quality and lowers costs while not impeding our economic recovery or increasing the debt." He simply opposes the public option, as well as Harry Reid's last-minute improvisation on Medicare. Klein's outburst only makes sense if you assume that there is one conceivable way to expand health insurance coverage, and that Harry Reid has discovered it.
Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait then endorsed Klein's position. Chait, for instance, wrote that Lieberman "seems to view the prospect of sticking it to the liberals who supported his Democratic opponent in 2006 as a goal potentially worth sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of Americans to fulfill." Klein also defended his position here, here, and here.
I have to side with Lane on this one. Klein creates a worst-case scenario (Lieberman's actions could "cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people") and then asserts that Lieberman is intentionally trying to cause that outcome (Lieberman "seems willing" to cause those deaths). Of course, he has no idea what Lieberman's motives actually are. The senator's justifications for his position may be contradictory or incoherent, but that does not justify Klein's language.
Unfortunately, the tactic Klein used is an increasingly common one, especially on this issue. Rep. Alan Grayson recently attracted widespread criticism for saying, "If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: 'Die quickly!'" Similarly, I criticized Eric Alterman back in 2007 for suggesting that President Bush had a "preference for allowing poor kids to get sick and die for his own ideological obsession" and "wants children to get sick and die in order to prevent what he believes will be a slide toward what he calls 'socialized medicine.'"
What Klein, Alterman, and other liberals don't seem to realize, however, is that this same tactic is frequently used against them when conservatives smear dissent as treasonous. For instance, was it fair for Karl Rove to say this?
Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.
As in Klein's case, Rove constructs a worst-case scenario (Durbin's statement "[puts] our troops in greater danger") and then suggests that Durbin is seeking to cause that outcome ("No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals").
What's especially absurd about Klein's language is that the stakes are relatively small. Lieberman's actions killed a compromise proposal to allow people ages 55-64 to buy into Medicare and a limited public-option provision, not the bill itself. Hundreds of thousands of people will not die as a result of those provisions being dropped. The process continues to move forward.
Moreover, as Lane points out, one could apply Klein's logic to accuse virtually any member of Congress who has threatened to vote against the bill at different points in the process (a group which includes many liberals). Are all of those members "willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people"? Where do we draw the line? It's entirely arbitrary -- and that's the point.
Update 12/15 7:29 PM: Continuing the symmetry with conservative rhetoric against Iraq war opponents, Klein defends his language in yet another post by resorting to the consequences defense:
[T]here seem to be two rejoinders in Lane's post. The first is that it is "an accusation of mass murder." It is not. It is a statement of consequences.
Conservatives who suggest that liberal anti-war rhetoric aids the enemy frequently offer the same argument. However, as so often occurs in the anti-dissent case, Klein's statement actually included an insinuation of nefarious motives (Lieberman "seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people"). The parallels are almost too perfect.
Update 12/16 8:54 AM: The NYT's Ross Douthat makes a similar argument against Klein's language (but more elegantly!) on his blog.
Update 12/16 5:49 PM: In comments, Dean Eckles offers a useful pointer to the research of Joshua Knobe at Yale, who has shown (PDF) that "people’s intuitions as to whether or not a behavior was performed intentionally can sometimes be influenced by moral considerations" - i.e. "their beliefs about whether the behavior itself was good or bad." That logic seems to apply very clearly in this case.