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Tossing civility overboard creates ripples far and wide

Published: Mon, January 10, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

The worst thing members of Con- gress could do would be to react to the weekend shootings in Tucson by walling themselves off in fear from their constituents. The second worst thing would be for everyone else to pretend that inflammatory rhetoric, weapons allusions and references to “Second Amendment solutions” to political disagreements don’t matter.

Let us be quick to stipulate that we’re are not suggesting that the government can or should attempt to enforce civility on people or politics; we’re saying that thoughtful people ought to censor themselves. There was a day not long ago when suggesting that people watch what they say would have been viewed as constructive criticism, not an affront to the Constitution. There was a day when just because two people disagreed, one wasn’t a fascist and the other wasn’t a communist. There was a day when teachers would say quaint things such as, “you can disagree without being disagreeable.” And there was a day when people named Everett Dirksen, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, men with political philosophies that were as different as night and day, could still end a day of political battling in nonpartisan conviviality.

Saturday morning, an obviously disturbed young man opened fire on an Arizona congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, and anyone else within range. As of this writing, Giffords remains in critical condition after surgery for a head wound. Six people are dead: U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, 63; Christina Taylor Green, 9; Gabe Zimmerman, 30, a Giffords aide; Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76, and Phyllis Scheck, 79. Fourteen others were wounded.

The 22-year-old man taken into custody, would have likely killed more but for the intervention of a woman and two men who subdued him while he was trying to load a new magazine into his Glock semi-automatic pistol.

For the record, those heroes were Patricia Maisch and Roger Sulzberger, who were waiting in line to meet Giffords, and Joseph Zimudie, who as in a nearby drug store when he heard shooting. Hero is an overworked word, but it clearly applies to people who run toward danger when others are doing what seems natural, running away.

A portrait emerges

Less than 48 hour after the shooting, most of what has become public knowledge about everyone caught up in Saturday morning’s attack outside a supermarket is superficial, including what is known about the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner. But the initial portrait is of a disaffected and increasingly unbalanced young man given to bizarre readings of the culture and politics surrounding him.

Regardless, early evidence indicates Loughner planned his attack, that he knew what he was contemplating was wrong and that he tried to reload, obviously unmoved by the horror around him: a congresswoman shot in the head and more than a dozen other people mowed down, one a child and others elderly.

Whatever form his punishment may take, clearly he should never spend another day of his life outside an institution.

The primary responsibility for the havoc he wreaked belongs to him. But, obviously, others saw him spiralling out of control. There were his strange postings on the Internet, run-ins with the law and expulsion from community college. Only his enablers during this time know who they are and how they failed him.

But to return to the earlier theme, Loughner may have been an outsider, but he was certainly not alone in his theories that ours is not a government of or by the people. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik is under fire from fellow Arizonans for saying: “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

Intemperate words don’t load guns or pull triggers. But if we believe that words matter, we can’t ignore that the vocabulary of fear and bigotry stokes the fires of paranoia, hate and violence in the Jared Loughners of the world.

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