Saturday morning, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords held a constituent rally/meeting in Tucson, Arizona. It was a chance for her to chat with those who elected her, get a feel for their views as she begins her next term in office, and continue the process of building a loyal base in her home district that would enable her to keep her job. What happened instead was that a clearly troubled young man arrived on the scene with a gun, shot Giffords in the head and killed six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. It was a horrific tragedy.
Many immediately began pointing fingers and assigning blame. Giffords, after all, was a relatively controversial member of Congress. In March, her district office was vandalized after Giffords' vote proved a pivotal one in the passage of the health care bill. During the midterm election, she was a frequent target of the GOP and Tea Party. Sarah Palin's PAC featured a map which included crosshairs over Giffords' district as one ripe for the picking. This imagery, which was most definitely tacky, has pundits accusing Palin of inciting violence. The attempt to assign blame for what happened in Tucson seems to center on that imagery.
Caveat time: I am not a fan of Sarah Palin. I disagree with her on some pretty profound levels, and I think she represents an emotional tenor in this country that concerns me. I do not, however, think she is to blame for what happened in Tucson. A very sick, troubled young man made a choice. How much political rhetoric factored into his choice is honestly irrelevant and does nothing but turn the lives (and deaths) of six innocent people into political pawns. Those people deserve better, and so do we.
There is, though, something in the reaction to the Giffords attack that does merit attention. There is no denying that we have allowed our political climate to become mired in hostility, resentment, and now violence. It seems as if respect has been stripped from our culture. We don't just disagree with the other side -- we hate them and wish them ill. George W. Bush is the devil, Barack Obama is a foreign scam artist who sympathizes with terrorists, and the only salvation for our very souls is....the guy we like. The leadership on both sides has allowed the lunatic fringe to become the face of their movements, which only serves to shroud the real message of the ideology to be lost behind misspelled signs and ridiculous rhetoric the defies logic let alone truth. We allow people to be whipped into frenzies over Obama's birth certificate or Sarah Palin's children because it's easier than engaging in real, thoughtful, and often difficult conversations over what needs to be done to repair the troubles that plague this country financially, socially, and diplomatically.
While I disagree with them at a fundamental, ideological level, I recognize that there are good, decent people at the center of the Tea Party who are motivated not by greed or evil but by an honest desire to help the country they love. The same is true of my own party. I believe in the people for whom I vote, and I trust that their motivations are good. I believe in the inherent decency of the people who seek office, and I refuse to vilify even the ones with whom I passionately disagree. I may not like the agenda they promote, but I believe that their agenda is steeped in a desire to better the lives of this country's citizens.
The lesson I think our politicians need to take from Tucson is not about blame. It's not about deepening the division between us. It is, though, about taking responsibility and having the courage to stand up to the lunatic fringe and saying "Enough is enough." It's about encouraging respect rather than anger. It's about creating bridges rather than canyons. On Saturday, one of the victims was a nine-year-old girl who was passionate about politics and for whom seeing her congresswoman live and in person was akin to seeing Hannah Montana. We owe it to her and the others who died with her to promote a system that is as beautiful and admirable as that little girl saw it. The time has come to return civility to the governing of our civilization.