Apart from the side-conversations taking place about beefing up security for members of Congress and the state of Loughner's mental health in the months before the shootings, the events in Tucson have sparked a much keener, much more important dialogue about the future of civil discourse in our country. That is, the ability of opposing sides to have a spirited debate about issues of great import, and “agreeing to disagree” without resorting to vitriol that is neither productive nor germane – or having it escalate, sadly, to violence.
Since that terrible day, the airwaves and the Internet have been coursing with speculation as to the root cause that motivated the accused gunman, Jared Loughner, to go on his rampage in a Safeway parking lot. Who or what was to blame? Everything from immigration reform and abortion has been cited, and everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Rush Limbaugh has been fingered as the culprit.
At the same time, others have been seizing upon this tragedy as an opportunity for craven political gain, under the guise of calling for a more civilized tone in our national political debate. Reading between the lines of what some of these pundits and politicians are saying is the message: “What I'M saying is fair and appropriate; what my ideological opponents are saying is not. Tell them to stop.” This group is being disingenuous. It is an attempt, ironically, to try to stifle political debate and impede civil discourse on one side or the other.
Others, however, have been more earnest and sincere in their desire to reframe civil discourse. President Obama gave a soaring speech earlier this week that struck a responsive chord before a grieving audience of 14,000 in Tucson, and millions more who watched the broadcast.
In his remarks, he said, “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it's 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.” As someone who often agrees to disagree with the president and his policies, I'd have to agree with him on this one.
And as the President neared the conclusion of his speech in Tucson, he remarked, “Let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them [the victims] proud.” If only the “punditocracy” would take this sentiment to heart.
Whether or not this tragedy will change the state of civil discourse in our country remains to be seen. It is surely, though, a noble topic to reintroduce into our national conversation.
Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.