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Kunin: Lessons from Tucson

01/11/11 5:55PM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin is among those wondering what the shootings in Tucson tell us about the current health of American democracy.

(KUNIN) It was a relaxed Saturday afternoon, until my neighbor told me the news: a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona had killed six people and critically injured a Congresswoman.

The bullets that went flying shattered more than innocent lives; they splintered the glass bubble that we live in. We assume in our daily lives that the world is both safe and sane. Otherwise we could not carry on.

Several days later, I still can’t stop thinking about Representative Gabrielle Giffords as she's fighting for her life. The dead and wounded are not just numbers - 20 people shot - they are real people: Judge John Roll, a nine year old girl who was there to learn about politics, a dedicated staff member, and concerned constituents.

It’s easy to conclude that the accused shooter, Jared Lee Laughner, was just one highly disturbed guy, that this tragedy could have happened anywhere, any time.

I don’t think so. I agree with the Pima County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, who said that "vitriol" has infected political discourse. One example is Sarah Palin’s now infamous web site where she put the names of Congressmen and women into her gun sights. Giffords, who was one of the targeted, said in an interview that she was frightened. "Words have consequences," she said prophetically.

The political environment we create matters because a disturbed person cannot always tell the difference between explosive rhetoric and explosive actions. Possibly he thought he was doing the country a favor by acting out his fantasies. We don’t know. But we do know that we have to turn down the volume and return to something that sounds old fashioned but is fundamental to democracy - it’s called civil discourse.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, both parties and the media are responding with appropriate sounding concern. The question is, will they carry out their expressed good intentions by treating those with whom they disagree with greater respect? One example of the lack of decorum was evident in last year’s State of the Union speech when a Congressman shouted, "Liar!" at President Obama. What kind of example did that set?

Our right to disagree is precious but fragile. The best way to protect and preserve it is to let the other side speak without demonizing or destroying their right to be heard. Such civil exchanges are the heartbeat of democracy - essential to keeping it alive.
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