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WHY ARE WE AMERICANS SO INTENT ON SLASHING AND BURNING OTHERS?

Why are Americans so divided?

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In a single century, we fought a hot war to defeat extremists on the right, and a cold war to defeat extremists on the left. That should have left the rest of us - from laissez faire conservatives to trust-the-government liberals - standing on fairly common ground.But listen to the way we talk to one other:

In the House of Representatives recently, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., objected to a proposal to cut federal grant money to groups that use that money to lobby the federal government for still more money. When Miller saw that the vote was not going his way, he didn't argue. He said: "It's a glorious day, if you're a fascist! If you're a fascist, it's a glorious day!" Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, agreed, saying that the House was now in the hands of "new authoritarians."

A more personal example: Not long ago, I took part in a campus debate over whether the United States should apologize for dropping atomic bombs in World War II. I took the position that the United States had no cause to apologize, because it had been reasonable for President Harry Truman to conclude that use of nuclear weapons would bring the quickest end to the conflict and result in the loss of fewer lives than his other options. In response, one student called me a racist. Few members of the audience seemed to think that was out of line.

Or how about this: On the op-ed page of the New York Times, columnist Anthony Lewis wrote about "radical Republicans" who, he said, were "slashing and burning"; columnist Bob Herbert railed against "a ruthless corporate elite and the politicians who do their bidding"; and pollster Louis Harris charged that "Republicans want to cause confusion."

Bile flows from the right, too. Rep. Bob Dornan, a California Republican, has described recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as "porn freaks." Alan Keyes, a former diplomat seeking the Republican presidential nomination, lashes opponents with a very acid tongue. And there are more than a few conservative radio talk show hosts - Gordon Liddy springs to mind - who appear to favor escalating beyond just a war of words.

So why has the public discourse descended to this level? I think part of it has to do with a general coarsening of our culture. At the same time, few people these days appreciate the give-and-take of informed debate and many have never learned to reason.

Finally, it has to be acknowledged that Americans have split over issues that are hardly trivial. Do rights belong to individuals or to groups? What's the tradeoff between freedom and equality? How essential is the preservation of the traditional family?

You might think that after 200 years, we Americans would have learned to argue about such things in a calm and civilized manner, showing respect and tolerance for our opponents. Wrong.