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More on vitriol and violence [Updated]

January 11, 2011 | 11:08 am

Flowers at the Capitol It was inevitable, I guess, that Tuesday's editorial on this country's overheated political rhetoric would be read by some as a purely partisan screed -- that is, as part of the attempt to blame the GOP for poisoning the well of political discourse. And it didn't help matters that the editorial mentioned Republican Sarah Palin putting online cross hairs on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her vote in favor of the healthcare reform bill, but not comments by the likes of the lefty Daily Kos blog about "targeting" the Arizona Democrat for voting against them on other issues.

Here's how a reader identified as Yogi_Bears_Tie put it:

The LA Times Editorial board does not have serious minded thinkers, but rather absolute partisan hacks.  You start by condemning the Left for using the attack to score political points, and then attack only Sarah Palin.  No mention what so ever about the extremely ugly rants against George W. Bush.  Does “Bush Lied; Thousands Died” ring a bell?  Maybe it just rings true to your partisan ears.

So the editorial appears to have been swept up in the backlash against the backlash -- the condemnation of the attempt by some lefties to cast the attempted assassination of Giffords as an outgrowth of talk radio, the Tea Party movement or angry political speech in general. We on the board can only blame ourselves for not speaking more clearly.

Our editorial Sunday on the shootings in Tucson -- "Shooting from the lip in reaction to Gabrielle Giffords tragedy" -- made the same point that many of the commenters were making Tuesday. Here's the final paragraph:

Free speech is one of this page's most fundamental values; we wouldn't suggest for a minute that it should be curtailed for fear of its consequences. But we agree with [former President] Clinton that people should assume responsibility for what they say, and we are both ashamed and embarrassed at the unreasoned and intemperate commentary we read Saturday.

The idea behind Tuesday's editorial was to say that even if there were no shooting in Tucson, we should still reflect on what's happened to discussions of policy in this country. The second person to comment on the editorial responded by calling Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) a "fascist" because of a bill he reportedly planned to introduce: a measure that would apply the same prohibitions on threatening speech to federal officials and members of Congress as are applied to the president. Brady's bill is a bad idea (in part because the prohibitions on speech about the president are, themselves, problematic), but it doesn't make him a fascist -- not by any stretch of the imagination. And in the wake of the shooting of one of his colleagues, it's an understandable overreaction by someone with a new reason to fear public service.

I know, "sticks and stones." And granted, calling someone a fascist is tame in comparison to the accusations leveled against elected officials in the 19th century. But as someone who loves the art of policymaking, I'm disturbed by how the country's continuous election cycle has affected the ability of legislators to seek the best approaches to governing. Ideas get reduced to caricatures. Compromises become violations of principle. And the motives of the folks on the other side are invariably corrupt.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg disagrees with me on this; his latest piece for us joins in the chorus of those defending the tone of today's politics. Vigorous debate is a good thing, indeed. But when was the last time a debate in Congress involved a contest of ideas aimed at joining the best elements of competing viewpoints? The big arguments of the last Congress weren't about legislating so much as they were about claiming the semantic high ground for the next election. Think "government takeover" and "ending Social Security as we know it."

That's something we all should be worried about. The tragedy in Tucson, where victims were chosen regardless of political affiliation or beliefs, is broadly shared. It's a moment to reflect on how corrosive politics have become, how disparaging we are of the people with whom we disagree. It should bring us together, even if it doesn't narrow the gaps in our view of how government should work. Instead, it appears that the shootings have provided just another opportunity for politics as usual.

Update, Wednesday, 6:01 p.m.: In his speech in Tuscon, President Obama made a similar point much better than I did. Here's a long excerpt:

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

They believed and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

RELATED:

Vitriol and violence

The exploitive rhetoric of tragedy

Shooting from the lip in reaction to Gabrielle Giffords tragedy

-- Jon Healey

Photo credit: Associated Press / Charles Dharapak

 

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