This is what it looks like when heated politics crosses the line

We’re willing to take Anne Arundel County Councilman John Grasso’s word for it when he says he was not threatening actual harm to the reporters of the Annapolis Capital when he warned one of them against running a “hit piece” against him, saying, “I’m telling you right now as a promise, you will regret it.” We’re also willing to assume that whatever exactly happened Tuesday in the confrontation between pro-marijuana protesters and Rep. Andy Harris at his Washington office, they didn’t intend to do him physical harm either. But both incidents serve as a reminder that the line today between heated political rhetoric and violence is far too thin and that we should all be careful to stay well shy of it.

Mr. Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, made his remarks in response to a story about a series of anti-Islamic posts he shared on his Facebook page. It was a legitimate story — there is no dispute about their authenticity, and their sentiments were particularly germane given previous racially tinged statements Mr. Grasso has made. He’s in the middle of a state Senate campaign, and Arundel voters probably wanted to know about this. It wasn't manufactured outrage; not only did the Council on American-Islamic Relations denounce the posts, they also promoted a campaign spokesman from Gov. Larry Hogan to clarify that he “has not and will never endorse” the councilman for anything and that “the governor has consistently stood up and spoken out against hate of all kinds and will continue to do so.”

Mr. Grasso says that when he promised “you will regret it,” he meant that he wouldn’t talk to Capital reporters again if he didn’t like the story. But it’s impossible to divorce that kind of language from the context of this summer’s shooting in the Capital newsroom, in which the disgruntled subject of a story is accused of escalating an old dispute into mass murder. The reporter Mr. Grasso was speaking to was in the newsroom at the time of the attack. There is no way he did not know this, and there should have been no way he could have failed to recognize that reporters at the Capital — all of us, really — can no longer shrug off rhetoric like that as idle talk.

The events at Dr. Harris’ office, at least as far as the video shows, appear less dramatic than both sides made them out to be. The footage shows Dr. Harris walking briskly past a group of protesters and through a private side door to his office, which he quickly closes behind him. One of the protesters tries to enter the main office door only to have what appears to be a staff member push it shut. She complains that her foot is caught — apparently because she stuck it in the door in attempting to enter — and another Harris staffer helps free her. Some of the protesters lie down in a “die-in” to commemorate friends who have overdosed on opioids. (The purpose of the demonstration was to protest Dr. Harris' opposition to legal marijuana, which apparently the protesters believe would have prevented their friends’ deaths.) Several Capitol Police officers arrive shortly afterward and largely leave the protesters alone until two of them begin to smoke marijuana, according to police and as captured on the video, at which point they are arrested.

It’s easy enough to watch the incident after the fact and conclude that Dr. Harris wasn’t in any real danger, but in the moment, we can see why he was concerned. He was by himself when he walked through the crowd, and as he suggested later, the memory of the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise at a congressional baseball practice in 2017 wasn't far from his mind. (Mr. Scalese later tweeted his support for Dr. Harris.) The attacker in that case was an Illinois man given to anti-Republican rants online — a vivid example of how political passions can be carried to tragic ends. The people gathered outside Dr. Harris’ office may not have looked like a particularly intimidating bunch, but he had no way of knowing where a confrontation might lead, and he had reason to be wary.

You can criticize Dr. Harris for not being sufficiently willing to talk to constituents who don’t agree with him. You can fault his marijuana policies — even we, who are not exactly at the vanguard of cannabis activism, think he’s gone too far in seeking to override the will of Washington, D.C., residents. But staging confrontations is no more the way to shape public policy than threatening reporters is the recipe for favorable coverage. We've seen too much violence, real and threatened, in the worlds of politics and journalism to take things like these lightly.

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