It's time to dial down the political rhetoric
Published in The Hill - 1/12/11
Last week, members of Congress took time out of the congressional schedule to read the words of the U.S. Constitution. It amazes me, in light of the critical condition Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) now confronts, that somehow by some twist of fate she fell in line at the place where she read the words of the First Amendment. The Constitution is the touchstone of every legislator; it is almost a sacred text in our democracy. In view of our reverence for the document, I think some Americans were surprised by its simple, unvarnished prose. Legislators know that legal codes are not great literature. From our experience, we recognize it is not the letter of the law, but the power of its words that makes a difference in people’s lives. And it is that power that we have called the spirit of the law, the essence of what the First Amendment stands for.
As we hang in the balance as a nation, whispering silent prayers for the victims, the survivors and the slain, as we wait for news of the final outcome of this tragedy, perhaps we should take a moment to review our own history as a nation. For centuries, Americans of different races, creeds and classes have suffered and died in a struggle against the oppression of intolerance. In different sectors of the world, blood is still spilled and lives are lost because of the inability of some of us to acknowledge the value and the integrity of any opposition.
As we as a nation examine what really happened in Arizona, the question for us as a society is not so much “who” fired the shots that killed six people and wounded 14 others, but the question is “what”: What have we done? What has gone wrong in America that has made it almost impossible for us to reason with each other? Has our ambition, our thirst for power, and hunger for headline news made any one of us indifferent to the true meaning of our democracy?
Somewhere I read that it is violence that breeds violence. Shock radio and television hosts, political candidates, even sitting members of Congress might never, ever dream of firing a shot or throwing a bomb, but those of us who are privileged to command the public forum have a responsibility to recognize that words can incite. And words that allude to violence, words that demonize our colleagues and their question the integrity of their opinions, can be the only approval the angry or unhinged will need to act.
Rep. Giffords posted the words of Mother Theresa on her website: “In life we cannot always do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” This is the inspiration Giffords uses to imbue her public service. Let her prayer be our guiding light in this time. Toning down our rhetoric, respecting the dignity and worth even of our opposition might not end all threats against federal legislators. Demonstrating to the nation how to disagree passionately yet with decorum and civility might not quiet the minds of all the mentally ill intent upon doing harm, but it will demonstrate the spirit of the First Amendment and respect for the deepest meaning of the Constitution.
Democracy is not a state. It is not some plateau we can climb up to and sit down at once we get there. It is an act. It requires the vigilance of every citizen and the watchfulness of every legislator. It cannot be an afterthought to our ambition or buried beneath our quest for power. Our oath as members of Congress requires us to make the law — its letter and its spirit — the central force of all our public lives. We the people are the embodiment of the Constitution. Our actions take those words and make them live. We can allow Tucson, Ariz., and other places in the country to become “the new Birmingham,” as Sheriff Dupnik of Pima County so aptly said, or we can set an example for the nation in our words and our deeds, in our legislation and our individual decorum that gives new life to the principles upon which this nation was founded. If we can find it in our hearts to do this, then the lives of six people, including one 9-year-old patriotic girl, will not be lost in vain.