The senseless shootings in Tucson (that left six innocents dead and thirteen wounded – including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords) traumatized the nation, threatening, for a moment, to exacerbate an already deep political divide. Shock always takes a toll, frequently causing reactions that can be quite revealing.
In this instance, the initial response of many Americans was simply to fall silent: to mourn the loss of life and to be struck by the suddenness, randomness and finality of this horrific act. The silence, however, was soon shattered by partisan discord.
Liberal commentators accused some on the right wing of American politics of creating a charged political atmosphere that fomented or validated this kind of violence. They pointed to examples where liberal elected officials had been demonized or targeted for defeat with ads using violent imagery. Singled out for special criticism was former GOP Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who has a fondness for gun imagery. For example, she once famously told her supporters not to "retreat, but reload" and her website features a map of Democratic Congressional candidates she had targeted for defeat (including Congresswoman Giffords) using the symbol of a "gun sight cross-hairs" to mark the targeted districts. One TV commentator was especially pointed in his criticism stating that "if Sarah Palin…does not repudiate her own part, however tangential, in amplifying violence and violent imagery in American politics, she must be dismissed from politics".
Palin and others on the right were quick to denounce their liberal critics accusing them of "playing politics" with the tragedy, adding that she was saddened by "the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event".
This discord dominated the opinion and editorial pages of most major newspapers and was hotly debated by TV commentators with charges and rebuttals flying fast and furious. Lost, however, in this back and forth was the fact that both sides were, to a degree, right. On the one hand, Sarah Palin was not responsible for the acts of Jared Loughner, the gunman. It is true that the political well has been poisoned by increasingly harsh rhetoric. But there does not appear to be any indication that Loughner was drinking at the well. From what we know, he appears quite simply to be mentally deranged and not a follower of any political movement.
At the same time, the well had been poisoned and while we had come to accept the ever coarsening environment as "politics as usual", in the shock-induced silence that followed the shootings, the partisan back and forth became more noticeable and jarring, causing some to say "enough".
It was President Obama who best put this sentiment into words. In his address at the memorial ceremony in Tucson, the President noted:
At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it is important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds…
If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate – as it should – let’s make sure…it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle."
The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, responded thoughtfully, as well. The Speaker postponed a Congressional vote to repeal the recently passed health care reform bill and called on the entire Congress to be more civil and respectful in debate. Following this lead, Members of Congress have been more temperate, of late.
The question, of course, is "will this last"? Which instinct will dominate in the future? Will politicians remain civil and respectful, continuing to listen the "the angels of their better selves", or, after a decent interval, will they return to all out warfare?
A recent poll conducted by Zogby International, shows the public to be somewhat cynical in this regard. When asked whether they "believe that the shootings…will lead to more moderation in the language and images politicians use when talking about issues…and [those] who disagree with them?"–”only 4% said that "this is a turning point" believing that "politicians will raise the level of respect". 34% believed that rhetoric will be moderated, "but only in the short term," while 47% said "there will be no change".
Based on past experience, my sense is that the public may be both right and wrong. Recalling earlier dramatic events that produced powerful public responses: the assassinations of the Kennedy’s and Dr. King; the trauma that followed the 9/11; or even the hopefulness generated by the Arafat-Rabin signing ceremony on the White House lawn – it is clear that the introspection or resolve to change that accompanied each faded with time. What is also true is that even as the moment passed, something positive remained. And this I believe may be the case once again. Our politics may once again degenerate into ugly partisan bickering. We may not end up passing needed reforms on gun control or dealing more effectively with mental illness. But I believe that we will not soon see candidates in the "cross hairs" or gun imagery used in campaign ads. And I believe that Gabrielle Giffords will long remain a symbol reminding her colleagues and the country of the horror they felt when they first heard of the shootings and of the need to remain civil and respectful in debate.