Today comes news of the shooting of an Arizona congresswoman at an event for constituents in Tucson, Arizona. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is in critical condition after surgery to address the damage caused by a gunshot wound to the head. So far, six have died in the shooting, including a U.S. District Court Judge John M. Roll and a nine year-old child. The United States now takes its place with a host of Third World nations whose politicians and judges are not safe in public. It is a sad day for our constitutional democracy.
Since very little is presently known about the assailant, it would be presumptuous to say too much about what this incident reveals. I do think, however, that it suggests something about the current state of American politics. There can be little question that the increasing incivility of our politics -- revealed in threats against public officials, in the inflated and shrill rhetoric of our politicians, in the emergence in the media and on the hustings of public figures who speak the language of hate and disrespect -- contributes to the likelihood that events like today's will occur. We know that Rep. Giffords (and, for that matter, Judge Roll) have taken positions on political and legal matters that many of the loudest, most uncivil voices in our nation find not just wrong but offensive. We know that the voices of intolerance that increasingly pervade our media and, unfortunately, our political campaigns claim that people who take certain legislative positions, or interpret the law in certain ways, are not just wrong but intolerable. When the message is everywhere that certain points of view, even points of view that have long been considered within the mainstream, border on the treasonous, when the idea that some kinds of people and some kinds of ideas should be hated rather than respected, extremism in action can be expected. When the political "discussion" in some states routinely reveals a level of intolerance, prejudice, and disgust toward fellow human beings, it should not surprise us that those states become the sites of behavior we associate with uncivilized lands and not the United States. It does no good to say that the nastiness is just talk, that it is simply a matter of electoral strategy -- for if the messages are persistent enough, if they are pervasive enough, ordinary citizens begin to take them for truth rather than tactics.
The classical political philosophers argued that all political systems, including democracies, have a natural tendency to degenerate. The American Founders sought to craft a system that would resist this tendency. We should be proud that our republic has survived more than 200 years and some very deep social divides. But republics can only persist so long as all citizens, including politicians, recognize each other as fellows, as companions in the ongoing constitutional project. In other words, degeneration occurs when incivility replaces mutual respect. All of us should do all we can to halt this process. I hope it's not too late.