Saturday, October 1, 2022

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Political Mercury

As your ‘conservative’ columnist, let me report the death threats


Abortion questions elicit extraordinary responses.

Back in 2002, Doug Gross smiled widely as he fielded the question.

“Your reputation proceeds you,” the Republican candidate for governor said in my office.

I’d asked Gross a question I regularly pose to pro-life candidates: If your position on abortion prevails and the procedure is again criminalized, what should the penalty be for a woman who obtains an abortion or a doctor who performs one?

Gross navigated his way gamely through the query, but many Republicans, most notably former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, have fumbled it. MSNBC aired that entire section of my 2011 interview with Pawlenty.

“I don’t think we want to make it a criminal sanction, but I think there should be some kind of penalty or consequence, but we don’t have a specific proposal as to what that would be,” Pawlenty told me early in his campaign.

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Pawlenty declined to answer a follow-up question about how much, if any, time he has devoted to considering the penalty element of the abortion debate.

To be fair, I’ve developed a similar line of questioning for Democrats who are pro-choice. Is there any situation in which an abortion should be criminalized? When do you think life begins, at conception or later?

At times, frustrated with the spin from Democrats, I’ll push further with a scenario: OK, let’s put it another way. If there were a pregnant woman in here right now, and I punched her in the stomach, would your response be, “Oh my God, you damaged her fetus!” — or would you be thinking, “Wow! He just killed a baby.”

We’ve printed some revealing responses — answers that inform voters on both sides of the issue.

But in this election cycle, after running a story on how Democrats handle the question, the Internet aggregator Raw Story put me on blast — not just with criticism, but with death threats from its readers for asking the question, probing into candidates’ bona fides on the life issue.

“Conservative columnist advocates violence against women.”

I doubt regular readers of my columns would assess it as a generally conservative forum — or me as a Trumper.

That considered, callers and emailers and online commenters started suggesting I am a Steve King supporter. Terms like racist and misogynist were applied liberally.

And then came the threats — suggestions, many graphic, that I should be killed or maimed or otherwise harmed for pressing Democrats on abortion policy, determining how deep their worldview runs on a defining issue for the past two generations of Americans.

Here’s a taste of the comments directed at me:

• “I imagine taking a car antennae to your face with such duration and force that the fat sack of flesh attached to it lies in ribbons draped over your battered skull…”

• “He hates women because he is a monster.”

• “Douglas Burns is a disgusting creature. His medieval views serve no useful purpose, much like him.”

• “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was responsible for a few rape babies himself.”

• “How about we tie this sicko down and rip his junk off while he watches???”

• “I‘m imagining cutting this guy’s nuts off with a rusty razor blade.”

• “I remember a story about Frank Sinatra talking to a young woman at the bar in Las Vegas and asked why she was crying. She told him about her boyfriend and how he mistreated her. Frank was livid and called his buddies. The next day the ‘boyfriend’ was found in an alley with both legs broken.”

Late one night at the office, I picked up the phone and a caller from Asheville, North Carolina, threatened me for asking the question.

“Asheville is a beautiful city, with great art and restaurants, and you don’t have anything better to do than call a newspaper reporter in Iowa who you really know nothing about?” I asked the caller, who in a rare turn of honesty and self-reflection for such people, paused, and almost with contrition, told me that, no, he didn’t really have anything better to do.

I stand by the abortion question because it has elicited some extraordinary responses. Some candidates come off as standing strong, unwavering in their commitment to protect a woman’s right to choose. I would think liberals would want to know that.

Other Democrats get awfully nuanced, weak-kneed — again, useful information for voters that cannot be gleaned simply by asking, “How do you stand on abortion?”

I work to push both Republicans and Democrats, pro-life candidates and pro-choice advocates, with edgy questions that force them off balance, because that’s when truth emerges.

CNN’s Bernard Shaw played a major role in the 1988 presidential election when he asked Democrat Michael Dukakis, an opponent of the death penalty, how he would react if his wife was raped.

“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Shaw asked.

“No, I don’t, Bernard,” Dukakis said. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.”

Even as a 19-year-old political writer for the Daily Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, I knew Dukakis was cooked. He emasculated himself with the timid, policy-wonk answer, showing not a trace or flash of anger one would expect. He was candidate first, husband second. Not a good look in 1988.

It was a fair and brilliant question from Shaw — who also asked Al Gore what he would do if he got AIDS, and Dan Quayle if he skipped Vietnam because he was scared of getting killed.

In last month’s Political Mercury, I described the disquieting experience of being in a media pen at President Donald Trump’s last rally in Iowa, of enduring the hostility of the Council Bluffs crowd incited to hate the media. But while uncomfortable, and at times bordering on frightening, that rally didn’t involve anyone threatening to kill me.

For me, those threats came from the political left’s outrage machine, the distance runners in the Oppression Olympics racing to be more offended more fast. By phone and email and online comments. I never took them seriously or reported these threats — just as the journalists at the Annapolis newspaper dismissed the actions of a disgruntled reader. Once you start down that road, you might as well leave the business of journalism.

This isn’t to suggest that I don’t deserve criticism.

It’s fair to question my question, as it was to question Bernard Shaw’s.

But here’s the thing: It’s increasingly hard to operate (as all journalists should do) outside of the political filter bubbles, the echo chambers on the left (which wants to constrain speech with the handcuffs of political correctness and virtue signaling) and the right (which challenges truth itself).

Trump can’t handle the truth, but liberals so often can’t stomach the indelicate questions, the journey into the borders of their safe spaces, that it takes to get to the truth.

I don’t know which is worse. ♦

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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