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In the Wake of Tragedy, a Time for More Civil Discourse
By Damon Circosta
Published: Jan. 10, 2011
RALEIGH - Tragedy occurred over the weekend when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was among 15 injured when a gunman opened fire at a town hall event, killing six. Before the sun had set on this terrible day, advocates and pundits were already discussing policy changes they claim would prevent something like this from happening again.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
When a person opens fire into a crowd, like on Saturday or on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007, the typical response from policymakers and the media is to discuss gun control or mental-health policy. In the weeks that follow, those topics certainly will be revisited.
But most surprising about the immediate aftermath of the events in Tucson is that there was a spontaneous, almost visceral, notion that the hardening of our political discourse may somehow be responsible for what happened. A tragedy like this forces us to ask questions, and while we can’t blame the negativity in our politics for this senseless act of violence, it certainly gives us pause to consider our tone.
Politics has always been a bit rough around the edges. Still, it has been particularly nasty in recent years. Yelling and screaming have replaced debating and convincing. Both sides of the political spectrum demonize opponents and cast political enemies as sub-human. It is seen in political ads, on talk shows and even in glib comments made to friends and families.
None of us are immune. At about the time the tragedy in Tucson occurred, I was in a meeting discussing election reforms. Not yet aware of the horrible events in Arizona, I made a snide remark about how a particular policy would not change unless one of our U.S. Supreme Court justices continued to overindulge in ham sandwiches.
I said it without thinking. The point I was trying to make is that Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and I didn’t think any of the current members of the court would change their mind. I didn’t sincerely hope that some member of the court would meet an untimely demise. But if I would have stopped and thought about my words for just a second, I would have realized that I was arguing for exactly that.
As I drove home from the meeting and listened to the reports out of Arizona, I couldn’t help but think that we have quit thinking about our government officials as fellow human beings with families, friends and lives separate from their jobs.
We might not like how our congressman votes on a bill or how a justice rules on a case, but in this era of politics as war, we have forgotten that these people aren’t our enemies. They are simply the folks who we have tasked with making some tough calls on the issues of the day.
I’m not saying that if we softened our political discourse the world would magically be rid of mentally unstable people who commit horrific acts. But we desperately need to rethink our civic affairs.
Pitting “us against them” might serve as a motivational tactic to get us to vote, but it is wreaking havoc on our society. We are so busy screaming at each other, calling names and getting worked up over politics that we have forgotten that the beauty of this country is we have a system of laws that lets us decide things without having to resort to violence and mayhem.
Doctors are cautiously optimistic that Congresswoman Giffords will survive the gunshot wound she sustained. Six others will not be so fortunate. Unless we find a way to change the tone of our political discourse, our very democracy might be the next casualty.