After Tucson, let us seek peace

January 18, 2011

As seen in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tuesday, January 18

The attempted assassination of my friend and colleague, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was an attack on all Americans, our Constitution, and our way of life.  It was also a wake-up call.  Our culture of violence and our zero-sum political discourse, unhinged by the extreme and hateful rhetoric of shock jocks and demagogues, threaten the Republic.

Last week, Nancy Pelosi handed the House Speaker’s gavel to John Boehner. Though Democrats lamented loss of the House, all Americans should appreciate the peaceful transfer of political power, a basic goal of our Constitutional system and something rarely achieved in the history of nations. We had a spirited national debate. There were disagreements. The people spoke, and their will was respected and upheld.  The principle that civic disagreements must be resolved in the courts, the legislature, and the ballot box – not through the barrel of a gun – is fundamental to the American way of life.

By substituting violence for political advocacy, the shooter who grievously wounded Congresswoman Giffords and killed six Americans attacked not only innocent people but our democracy itself.  The dark irony of the attack’s setting – a “Congress on Your Corner” meeting, at which Congresswoman Giffords made herself available to hear the concerns of her constituents – only underscores the point.

This week our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, the families of those killed and wounded, and all those still fighting for their lives in Arizona.

While we pray, we must recognize this despicable act as a wake-up call. Acts of political violence are not without precedent in American history, but they have come at moments when deeply divisive forces and events test our mettle as a democracy.

This is such a moment.

This plot was hatched in a toxic political climate permeated by vitriol and, in some cases, marked by deeply disturbing calls to near insurrection. The paranoid delusions of the alleged shooter could only have been deepened by the rock-bottom tone of our national debate, which erodes civic trust and incites extremism.

Tempting though the political blame game may be, partisan attacks dishonor the victims of this crime. It is not difficult to identify the sources of incitement and extremist rhetoric in our politics, and I call upon all of those who have played fast and loose with civility to earnestly reconsider their words and deeds. 

It is a time for demagogues to search their souls and change course. Indeed, it is a time for all of us to search our souls. Politicians of all stripes sew anger and division. Angry words can lead to angry acts, and political leaders should set a tone befitting a nation that prides itself on commitments to tolerance and democracy.

Beyond the political realm, this tragedy should provoke new reflection on the crass attitudes toward violence that make our country an uglier, more dangerous place. What happened in Tucson on Saturday happens all too often on the streets of our cities, where gunshot and assault victims die anonymously, with no television coverage or national moments of mourning.  Often there is only a grieving mother, brother, or child. 

None of this is news. But it is well worth acknowledging and reconsidering it in light of Saturday’s tragedy.

We can do better. For all the horror of Saturday, we would do a disservice to the victims and to the nation if we did not seize this moment, look within, and put a better foot forward.

Awakened by this horrific violence, we should renew our shared determination to defend our democracy, strengthen our commitment to civility even in the face of disagreement, and affirm our belief that we are all Americans – no matter our views on health care, taxes, financial regulation, foreign policy, or abortion.  Let those who profit from division and fan the flames of distrust and discontent reconsider their actions. 

And let us seek peace.

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