Sunday, January 09, 2011

Civic Discourse

Many will say the shooting spree at Rep. Giffords' "Congress on your Corner" session in Arizona was not the direct result of a specific political perspective and I'm not going to argue with that. That this was the act of one crazed person cannot be disputed. Nor should anyone suggest that one party or another condoned yesterday's tragedy.

That said, there are those, from both sides of the aisle and from all walks of life, who must take some responsibility for allowing and even establishing an environment where unstable and confused people think it's OK to walk into a building and start shooting because they are angry at government.

In the coming days there's going to be a lot of talk about the toxic political tone in Washington, DC and around the country. Some will wave the banner of "free speech" to suggest that there's really nothing we can do to tone down the vitriolic rhetoric.

I love free speech. I'm doing it right now. I agree that we should "defend to the death" (as Volatire would say) the rights of others to disagree with us. We should even defend the rights of others to really, really hate government or individuals in government or anyone for that matter. Passionate, vehement, biased, incorrect and even angry rhetoric can and must be tolerated.

At the same time encouragements toward violence and death threats need to stop. We may not be able to stop them through legislative or judicial action, especially merely implied suggestions of violence. So we'll have to stop them through the powerful instrument of public opinion. In short, we all have the responsibility to challenge those who take their disagreements to that next level of violence.

Clearly, whether it was the attempt on Republican Tom DeLay (or, really, anyone who happened to be in the Capitol) that resulted in the tragic death of a brave Capitol Hill security guard in 1998 or the attempt on Giffords that killed six people in Tucson yesterday, those who argue that the populace should be in a state of war with anyone in public office occasionally get what they want. And for these people to step back and say "oh, wait, that's not what we meant" is unconscionable.

The founding fathers set up our current system of government to avoid exactly this type of vigilantism. One of their many goals was to make these brutal actions unnecessary because people would be given the right to express their views in an open and fair environment.

I recognize there are those who feel this goal has not been met or that the system has become so corrupt that we must have another violent revolution to "take back our country." I disagree. I think we -- as in "we the people", not "we the pundits" or "we the political establishment" -- should take back our country from those who encourage not-so-random acts of violence.

It makes me sad that I am questioning whether it is good advice to suggest that constituents attend Congressional townhall meetings. Clearly this is a free speech issue. It's OUR free speech issue. I, you, the guy or gal down the street should be able to support or oppose a candidate or a policy position without fear of death or physical injury. It's incumbent upon us to protect that right. If we don't, we will all lose the ability to speak openly, freely and without fear.