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In our opinion: High treason

Published: Friday, July 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

John Anthony Walker Jr., an American naval officer sometimes described as the most destructive Cold War spy in history, helped the Soviets decipher more than 1 million encrypted messages over nearly 20 years.

John Walker Lindh, also known as the "American Taliban," attended terrorist training camps and was captured fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban in an uprising near the city of Mazari Sharif in 2001.

Benedict Arnold was a general in the Continental Army who obtained command of the fort at West Point, N.Y., as part of a plan to surrender it to the British.

Yesterday, state Republican delegate Brandon Beckham categorized Utah legislators alongside these men when he called the creators of HB116, Utah's guest-worker law, "traitors."

We trust Beckham was carried away in the moment and didn't think through the implications of his remark. This type of hyperbolic, inflammatory rhetoric is a poor substitute for good argument and should not have a place in Utah's — or America's — democratic process.

HB116 is part of a comprehensive solution to Utah's immigration problem based on a set of principles known as the Utah Compact. Far from a subversive plot to undermine the government, the Compact calls for respect for the rule of law (including federal law), affirmation of free-market principles and support for families. It served as the foundation for thoughtful, robust debate about how Utah could compassionately and creatively address the complex issues posed by illegal immigration.

The package was ultimately passed by 21 state senators and 43 state representatives. A wide variety of business, community and religious groups, including this newspaper as well as its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, supported these legislative reforms. And recent polling shows that a majority of Utahns are opposed to repealing HB116.

That's a lot of traitors.

Beckham's remark also highlights the larger issue of civility in public debates. We are concerned by the rise of incivility in America, fueled by the Internet and by radio and TV personalities who have discovered that extreme rhetoric and character assassination are effective in attracting an audience.

The 24-hour news cycle also contributes, with politicians waging an eternal campaign in which the perpetual focus is on targeting and defeating an opponent, making it more difficult to transition into the mindset of negotiation and compromise necessary for effective governance. For all involved, the temptation to cross lines of civility in an attempt to rouse emotions and mobilize supporters is always present.

To be clear, it is vital to the democratic process that citizens and their representatives debate issues and strongly criticize ideas, but this must be done in a reasonable and fair-minded way. When that criticism grows into a character attack and defines those with different views as enemies, it becomes extremely destructive.

We know Utahns are capable of rising above the temptation to demonize their opponents. Let us respect one another in an honest debate that is spirited without being mean-spirited.

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