The horrific shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six people Saturday in Tucson has spurred a lot of reflection. Many have used the event to call for a more civil discussion of the many vexing issues facing our nation.
The shooting appears to be work of a man more troubled by mental illness than political zealotry, but it may be the wake-up call the nation needs.
In recent months, congressional offices have been vandalized, the president yelled at during his State of the Union address and a member of Congress hanged in effigy.
Threats against members of Congress tripled between 2008 and 2009. Death threats are “more common than you’d like to believe,” Maine’s 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree said Sunday.
What have we become as a nation?
“Our nation is the greatest in the world partly because our constituents can have unfiltered interactions with those individuals who represent them in the U.S. Congress,” Sen. Olympia Snowe said in a weekend press release mourning the shootings.
Both assumptions — that constituents can have unfiltered interactions with their representatives and that we are the best nation on Earth — are threatened unless the rhetoric is cooled.
When a former vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, posts a map on her website with crosshairs over certain congressional districts (Rep. Giffords’ was one of them), civil discourse is degraded.
When the leader of U.S. Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, says his top priority is to ensure President Barack Obama serves only one term, we can no longer hope that compromises — the only solution to vexing problems — will be in the offing.
When a rising star in the Republican Party, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, tells her adherents to be “armed and dangerous,” violence is not a surprise.
“For someone who’s deranged, to hear people say that if the ballot box doesn’t work, it’s time for bullets … it’s frightening,” said Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who hurl insults and spout angry rhetoric. But experts agree that the most troubling exhortations are coming from the right. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security — created by a Republican-controlled White House and Congress — warned that right-wing extremism was on the rise and that violence was likely.
Much of the anger is recent years has centered on overhauling the country’s health care system. The summer of 2009 is remembered for “death panels” and shout-filled town hall meetings, with the anger stoked by talk show hosts who know that hate-filled rants boost ratings. Rep. Giffords’ office was attacked after she voted for the health care reform bill crafted by Democrats.
Many polls show that Americans are evenly split on whether the health care bill should be repealed or kept as law but improved. With such divided opinion, Congress and the president clearly have a lot of difficult work ahead of them just in this area.
America’s democracy is revered because it has survived traumas as great at the Civil War and the riots of the 1960s, the latter fomented by the left. Beyond condemning Saturday’s shooting, political leaders and commentators of all stripes must ask whether, through their words and actions, they are working to better the lives of American people or just seeking to sow discontent in hopes of scoring the next political victory.