We all had a finger on the trigger—I.F. Stone wrote those words about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the cruel fall of 1963.
Now we come to the bleak winter of 2011, and how much has changed? Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lay near dying in her own blood after a shooting rampage in Arizona left six dead, from a federal judge to a girl of nine, and 14 others injured. It all happened in the most American of places: a strip mall parking lot on a Saturday morning. That's what the country's come to now. It's no coincidence it was a Democratic member of Congress who was gunned down—this is no random act of violence. The suspected assassin said so.
The voice of the sheriff on the scene cut through the fog of grief as the tragedy's shadow fell over the nation when the new year was fresh, eight days old. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik stated the truth we already sense: The public "discoarse" environment we live with every day, especially the festering, hateful vitriol coming from the right-wing media (yes, that means you, Rush Limbaugh), is coming home to haunt us. Politicians who trade on violent words and anti-government images (yes, that means you, Sarah Palin) have simply got to stop or be shunned in the public square.[Photo Gallery: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.]
Limbaugh, who doesn't know how to spell shame, is shocked, shocked that his extremist day-in, day-out rhetoric—which largely consists of taunting the other side—is coming under critical scrutiny. Palin's antics aren't fun or funny anymore, and she'd best stay home for a while and not darken our doors in the Lower 48. But wasn't it nice of her to send "sincere condolences" to the families who lost loved ones in the sickest scene, the saddest story we've seen?
In the America we thought we knew, members of Congress generally don't get gunned down. Back about 150 years ago, a hot-headed congressman from South Carolina caned a New England senator for his strenuous opposition to slavery right on the Senate floor. The Civil War started brewing from then on, so vicious was the beating. Abolitionist Charles Sumner, the senator from Massachusetts, took years to recover. And the same may be so for Giffords. In fact, the deadly shooting of the spirited congresswoman and others may set off another war between states of mind, this one over civility on the public airwaves, or a greater canyon between red and blue states. It's not enough to expect the purveyors of extremism to "tone things down" for a few days. Civility is more than manners, mind you—it suggests an atmosphere and a code of conduct based on fair play.
We on one side of this can't be faint-hearted and meek. If there are any great lions left in Washington's pride, let's hear them roar now at this attempt to snuff out such a bright light. So far, John Boehner, the new speaker of the House, sounded a fine, simple note of eloquence when he declared that an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Speaking of that, this is also a "teachable moment" for President Obama and the nation. As measured as the man is, some words from the heart would not go amiss. When a crisis hits a family, the head often has something to say on its meaning and message. Something that helps straighten out the sadness and the hurt—I'm just sayin': Say something, Mr. President. Going to Arizona is the right thing to do. This is a national emotional emergency.
In this time of tragic violence, we did not all have a finger on the trigger, but we are all implicated in healing the wound to our body politic. As a nation we have been changing, but now we are changed utterly, and not for the better. The shootings in Arizona completed and crystallized the change. Giffords herself proved most prescient on counting the cost of violent images—and words like "reload"—when they are tossed into the political ring to take someone down. Her words read like a tragic Greek chorus. [Take the poll: Is Political Rhetoric To Blame for Arizona Shooting?]
"We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list," Giffords said last year, "but the thing is...the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there are consequences to that action."
Words have consequences. Giffords is a casualty of that truth.