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AMERICA ALSO GUARANTEES RIGHT TO BRAY

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THE LITTLE smile on the man's face was smug and quite superior. He looked enormously pleased with himself.

In fact, he had just been charged with two counts of murder and one of attempted murder for killing a doctor and another man outside a Florida abortion clinic and wounding the second man's wife.Abortion is legal in Florida and most other places. Murder is not.

But those are only man's laws. The demeanor of the assassin, a former minister, made it clear he imagined himself responsive to a higher law.

God save us all from folks with that funny shine in their eyes!

I thought of that fellow when my wife was telling about the political affair she attended the day after the Florida killings.

The president, the first lady, the vice president and his wife had stopped in the area to speak on behalf of health-care reform and to argue, in a broader way, for unity in the pursuit of basic social goals.

The crowd was large. Many had come to listen. Many others had come expressly to prevent the speakers from being heard - to wave placards, scream denunciations, and bawl furious demands on behalf of their various agendas.

Unlike murder, the right to bray like ninnies also is guaranteed in America. But days after the event, my wife still could not get out of mind the hatefulness in those faces and those voices.

"It was ugly," she said. "Like warring tribes. It makes you understand better what's happened in Rwanda."

That's a terrible notion, and one devoutly hopes it is not correct.

Yet the strange thing is I heard almost those exact words spoken not so long ago an ocean away. And not just once but several times.

"To us," said a European friend, "it looks like your society is coming apart. And it worries us, because America has been the stabilizing force in the world for so long."

Another friend there was more explicit.

"Always before," he told me, "you could find ideas about which you agreed.

But now -" He shrugged. "Now it is everybody against everybody. Black against white. City against country. Women against men. Homosexuals. Asians. Spanish people. Everybody against everybody, and everybody against the government."

That's how this country looks to some in Europe. They may very well be wrong, of course. The resilience of U.S. culture has been underestimated more than once before.

But to be entirely honest, that's how it sometimes looks from here as well.

Purposeful public discourse requires a minimum of civility. There's room for disagreement, and powerful convictions are essential.

But the people with that queer shine in their eyes are the enemies of us all.