Paul Greenberg

A cancer is eating away at a once Grand Old Party, and if the party doesn't wake up and take precautions, it may wind up only a shadow of its better self -- a hollowed-out refuge for haters and paranoids and the kind of ideological parasites that can reduce a major party to a minor one.

The historian Richard Hofstadter spoke of a "paranoid style in American politics," and noted its "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." He called it "an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life," one that it isn't confined to left or right. It's an equal-opportunity form of craziness and, sure enough, it's back. If it ever went away.

Somewhere there must still be a remnant of the John Birch Society buried in the woodwork of American politics and still burrowing away. Such types swarm in the fever swamps of any society's culture, but in hard times, or just uncertain ones, they tend to overflow and threaten the health and stability of even long established and respected institutions, societies and whole civilizations.

Think of Germany in the 1930s and the Nazi sickness, or the conditions that led to the rise of bolshevism in Russia as the West destroyed itself in a first world war that would prove but a harbinger of an even greater and more calamitous second one.

Or take the long view and see what has befallen Islamic civilization since it was once renowned for its arts and sciences, its tolerance and hospitality, its architecture -- and its poetry! The civilization that gave us Ibn Khaldun and Harun al-Rashid now languishes, and in its decline produces al-Qaida types whose idea of progress is death and destruction. Their murderous rhetoric, once lightly dismissed by a West grown fat and careless, proved all too serious.

There's a lesson in all this if we in the West will ever learn it -- and act. Whether it's Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto or today's fatwas coming out of the Arab world, words can lead to acts. Horrible acts. And shouldn't be lightly dismissed.

Consider a couple of recent rhetorical performances here in bucolic Arkansas of all places:

Right in the middle of the citywide shutdown in Boston that followed the bombings at the finish line of its famed Marathon, a state representative and gun enthusiast named Nate Bell twittered a nasty little message about Bostonians "cowering in their homes" without firearms -- just when the rest of America was thinking of their calm courage and vigilance. (Which once again paid off.)

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.