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Protecting democracy

THE arrest of two people charged with conspiring to kill presidential candidate Jesse Jackson should sound an alert for every American, not just the Rev. Mr. Jackson and his supporters. Too often in the history of the United States, fringe elements - mad at society and swept up by ego or a misguided cause - have taken aim at the country's political leadership.

Presidential aspirants accept the risk of attracting the enmity of disaffected members of society. That Jackson's bid for high office should enrage a few white supremacists to the point of plotting against him is not surprising. From the start, the Jackson campaign has been aware of this possibility; the Secret Service guards the candidate closely.

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But ultimately, protection for Jackson and every other candidate should flow from the commitment of millions of individual Americans to the integrity of their political system, and support for their leaders. Citizens may laugh at the foibles and bluster of politicians, and they may sometimes lapse into cynicism when politics turns nasty or corrupt, but they must continue to recognize that the process of choosing a national leader is, in a real sense, their individual responsibility. They have a stake in protecting their leadership through their participation in the political process and through their prayers.

A plot aimed at one candidate must, therefore, be seen as a potential attack on the electoral process - on democracy itself.

In the case of Jesse Jackson, special circumstances make the need for vigilance doubly apparent. As has been noted frequently this year, his run for the White House is establishing a political landmark for all Americans, black and white.

The candidate's often controversial policy ideas aside, Jackson's determination to push through the barrier that says a black person can't be elected to national office generates admiration. And though his primary victories have been sparse, his totals in the popular vote - often across racial lines - remain impressive.

Along with the admiration has come the enmity of a few who think they can't tolerate the thought of a black reaching for the top. This should not surprise us. But the hate of those few, whether in a rural enclave in Missouri or elsewhere, has to be countered by the fair-mindedness of the many.

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