Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Will the Last Word Be?

On Wednesday, in a special session of Congress, the House of Representatives, in special session, took time to remember Congress Member Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was injured in an assassination attempt on this past Saturday. They also resolved to recognize the six citizens who were killed in that attack as well as those who were injured and those who sacrificed their safety to render aid and to subdue the gunman.

This was a particularly moving occasion. In which Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader John Boehner gave tribute.
I was particularly struck by Boehner's conclusion, '...we will have the last word...'

None of us know how America will react to this tragedy. It is not going to be the last one we face. Unfortunately there have been others. I think, as I have posted previously, that we need to reflect on why our most natural inclination in the face of this attack, was to blame one another. We never asked a question about the mental, or physical health of the gunman. Nor did we ask whether or not there may have been adequate protection for such events. We asked those questions later. The most immediate questions had to do with whether or not this act of violence was incited by political extremist ideology. And of course, attack gave birth to defense and counter attack. Which, I think says something important about us - that we know, no matter where we place the blame - that there is something wrong with the way we are conducting public debate in this country.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think there have to be 'kid gloves'. I think political debate and discussion, should be vigorous, I believe it should be passionate. I believe that critique and criticism can be hard. I believe that there is room for partisanship. There's a reason why we don't just have one political party in our country and I think its a healthy thing. We don't have to agree on everything.

But I also believe that we can have tough, partisan politics that is free of personal attack, bitter invective, hate speech and castigation. I believe that there can be polarization in the political arena that leaves room for reconciliation. I believe that after vigorous debate, free of rancor and rage, there can be negotiation and compromise. I believe anything less than this, should be the exception and not the rule.

The idea that it is absolutely foreign to imagine that 'free speech' can contribute to an atmosphere in which people can be incited to take violent action is an ahistorical position. And an unreasonable one.

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, it happened when our city was so think with extremism that, prior to the President's visit, the Dallas Chief of Police appeared on television, essentially to tell the city to be on their best behavior. While it was a lone gunman who killed the Kennedy, there was an atmosphere in which people already believed it was plausible and one man showed it was possible.

The same was true when Martin Luther King was murdered. At atmosphere so think with racial hostility, that the plane he boarded to Memphis had to be searched previous to take off,  because of a bomb threat.

Random violence? It does happen. We are learning that there was more randomness to the Arizona shootings than we first believed. But 'randomness' was not our first resort to explain the violence. And it wasn't our first resort because we know that an overcharged atmosphere can produce disastrous results. And we know that, because we've seen it before.

John Boehner is absolutely right - 'we will have the last word'. The question is, what will that last word be?

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