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In the Wake of the Giffords Shooting, Civility and Self-Reflection Should Be Our Guide

By Tracy Dingmann

U.S Representative Gabrielle Giffords tweeted the news Saturday to her constituents far and wide:

“My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later.”

And why wouldn’t she let everyone know? The third-term congresswoman from the 8th District of Arizona flew back from D.C. nearly every weekend and was proud of her strong record of constituent service. Colleagues say the 40-year-old Congresswoman was driven by noblest aspects of the American democratic ideal.

In March of 2010, when Giffords’ office door was smashed in the wake of a contentious partisan debate over health care reform, she told MSNBC:

“Our democracy is a light, a beacon really around the world, because we effect change at the ballot box, and not because of these outbursts — of violence in certain cases, and the yelling, and it’s just … you know, change is important, it’s a part of our process, but it’s really important that we focus on the fact that we have a democratic process.”

But what happened instead of “Congress on Your Corner” last Saturday was an American nightmare.

Outside Gongresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' office on Jan. 11, 2010. Image courtesy Meredith Shiner, POLITICO.com

In a premeditated attack, a madman shot Giffords in the head and fired on the crowd.  A congressional staffer who worked for Giffords was killed, along with a child, a federal judge, and three senior citizens, all of whom were exercising their democratic right to talk to their congresswoman. Fourteen others, including Gifford, remain seriously or gravely wounded.

As The Nation editor Katrina Vanden Huevel wrote so movingly in “The Arizona Horror:”

This was an assassination of democracy, an armed assault on citizens gathered to exercise the most precious of American rights—the right to free speech and assembly. Rep. Giffords was doing the essential work of politics, meeting with her neighbors and constituents outside of a grocery store in a “Congress on Your Corner” gathering. This small “d” democratic act is so central to our Constitution and our republic that its protection is enshrined in the First Amendment, the same amendment that Giffords read aloud on the opening day of Congress.

Nothing is more corrosive to democracy than the use of violence to terrorize the public square, to shut down speech, to slay those seeking its exercise.

Our Human Horror

In the days since the shooting, perceptions of the would-be assassin’s motives have shifted wildly. They now settle around serious mental illness and a deep-seated and irrational grudge against Congresswoman Giffords. That’s one kind of horror.

But the other kind of very human horror thrown into sharp focus by the mass murder in Arizona is our overheated political climate and culture of violence.

Were those who rushed to draw a direct line between the assassin and some of the most shocking and vile sentiments expressed in the name of partisanship just flat out wrong? As we look back – and forward – do we really think were we wasting our time having those discussions?

I say no. Shooting a congresswoman in the head as she meets with her constituents is political. The national furor it unleashed over the level of partisan discourse in this country was political.

It is worth continuing the conversation.

In the wake of the shooting, all of us owe it to the victims’ very faith in democracy, and in the congresswoman’s, to examine our language and our attitudes. Words do matter.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne said it best, using Gifford’s previous statements as an example:

In honor of Giffords, the effort to drain the rhetorical swamps should be as nonpartisan as she was in her interview. It is wrong, at any point on the spectrum, she said, to “incite people and inflame emotions.”There are, she said, “polarized parts of our parties that really get excited and that’s where, again, community leaders, not just, you know, the political leaders, all of us have to come together and say, ‘Okay, there’s a fine line here.” ‘

So What Do We Do?

Does the answer lie in simply barring “eliminationist rhetoric,” as New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman suggested on in his NYT column on Jan. 10?

Krugman wrote:

The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary. And it’s the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence. (Emphasis mine.)

That would be a start. (I mean, really – how much moral regard does it take to recognize that stuff like this is just plain wrong?)

Let’s move beyond those most obvious examples and go even deeper.

For those of us who work in policy matters, political debate should be marked by basic civility and decorum.

But it should also be about self-reflection. I know I will be asking myself – am I using overly heated rhetoric that dehumanizes and distorts those on the other side? Am I giving my colleagues – or my children – any reason to think that is ever okay?

For my part, I will strive to never stop demonstrating that informed discourse and discussion is the best way to talk about political differences. That’s what Congresswoman Giffords believed in when she tweeted about her ill-fated meeting Saturday.

As Americans, it’s what we should all believe in.



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