In the past few days, I’ve been appalled by the national political discourse since the murderous rampage in Tucson that left seven dead and a U.S. congresswoman fighting for her life. Appalled, of course, by the video released today by Sarah Palin, accusing opponents of “blood libel” (a phrase so fraught with heavy historical baggage I don’t think I’ve ever even heard it in a non-joke context) while posturing at presidential airs. But appalled also by the response on the left– particularly in the immediate aftermath of the attack, as so many liberals seemed so eager (hopeful?) to find blame with Palin and the Tea Partiers that guilt was assumed and conclusions drawn before the facts were even in.
The facts, of course, don’t bear out any sort of connection between the vitriolic, democrat-hating, pro-guns-at-public-events Tea Partiers, and the politically incoherent, violent rage in Jared Loughner’s mind. Would I have been startled if there were a connection? No, and if evidence turns up that he interpreted “political” ads like this one as calls for violence, I wouldn’t be surprised. But as far as we know, he didn’t.
For someone looking to make political hay out of this tragedy, I see ample opportunity to advocate for tighter gun control laws or better care for the mentally ill, but seeing this as an opportunity to point to the target-maps and the “reload” references and cast veiled blame on Palin and the Tea Party is not just counterproductive, but hypocritical. If what you seek is a more civil political discourse, please do not take the opportunity of an attempted assassination and shooting rampage as an occasion to blame your opponent for extreme rhetoric. (Of course, if what you seek isn’t civil discourse but small-fry victories, then by all means, have at it.)
This evening, President Obama put all that petty party politics to bed, with a powerful speech that recalled the themes of unity that he campaigned on three years ago. He began with an emotional tribute to the victims, and followed with a salute to the heroism of the day. But he turned it from an ordinary post-tragedy speech into a truly brilliant piece of rhetoric by drawing on the story of Christina, the 9 year-old girl, recently elected to her student government, who was among the victims on Saturday as she went to meet her Congresswoman:
Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
I know that tomorrow on cable news, the same angry faces will be right back at it. But for tonight, I’m proud to live in a country where democracy means more than politics.