If you saw a woman struck by a car, would you call an ambulance right away? Or would you first ask for her papers to make sure she was not an illegal immigrant?

If someone living down the street from you was suffering from the H1N1 flu, wouldn’t you want him to get immediate medical help? Would you rather see him in pain and perhaps spread the disease to others in your neighborhood?

Rep. Joe Wilson deserves all the condemnation he’s received for his boorish behavior during President Barack Obama’s address on health care. No Democrat ever shouted “You lie!” during a George W. Bush speech to Congress.

But at least as consequential for our politics was the issue that moved Wilson to his outburst. Wilson accused Obama of prevarication when the president declared: “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”

Obama sandwiched this denial between his knockdowns of two other claims about his health reform plan: the ludicrous charge that it would create death panels, and the accusation, also false, that it would promote abortions. In fact, the administration is negotiating very hard with pro-lifers to make the bill “neutral” on abortion.

The president included the line about illegal immigrants because he thought, probably correctly, that for many voters, it would be a deal-breaker if they thought that his health proposals would help those who broke the law to come to this country.

Yet it should bother us a lot more than it does that alleged plans to kill off seniors and promote abortion are spoken of in almost the same breath as the matter of delivering health care to fellow human beings, however they arrived on our shores.

For the record, Wilson’s premise is itself untrue: The framers of the health care bill did all they could to make sure it wouldn’t help illegal immigrants. Yes, a few might slip through the cracks and — horrors! — get assistance. But the health reformers wrote language as tough as it could be to make sure this wouldn’t happen, short of creating provisions so draconian that some who are here legally would also be denied coverage.

At least as bad were those on the far right who defended what Wilson did. Rush Limbaugh’s only criticism of Wilson was over the South Carolina congressman’s grudging apology.

“This administration is not your average presidential administration,” Limbaugh declared. “This is not a garden party. This is not a lecture at Harvard or any other university. We are in the process, we are in the midst of an administration that is trying to totally tear down the institutions and traditions that have made this country great.”

And what evidence is there that Obama is tearing down our “institutions and traditions”? There is none, unless you see it as an affront to our traditions that we have our first president whose father was born in Kenya, or that the American people decided to elect someone other than a conservative as our commander in chief. The far right has decided that extremism in assailing Obama is no vice.

As for immigrants who are here illegally, those who go to an emergency room receive medical attention, and they should. No doctor I know, whatever his or her politics, would deny treatment to a sick person on the basis of immigration status.

Forget compassion and consider self-interest. Aren’t you better off if the person working next to you who has a communicable disease has early access to care?

I am not one of those who dismiss Americans concerned about illegal immigration as racists or reactionaries. There are legitimate disagreements as to what we should do about it and problems with extending government programs to those who violate the law to get here.

But I am not at all at peace with the fact that the one issue about which a member of Congress chose to rise up and accuse our president of being a liar related to the charge that our chief executive wasn’t doing enough to build walls between illegal immigrants and health coverage.

How mean-spirited will we allow ourselves to become? How coarsened has our political culture made us? We like to see ourselves as a generous, caring and welcoming nation. Are we losing that part of our character?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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