Just as it sometimes takes a scandal to engage Americans in a national conversation about sex, race or some other touchy topic, it sadly has taken a deranged gunman to launch us into a national argument about civility.
Much of the chatter has centered on how much the inflammatory rhetoric in our national media and political forums might have contributed to the Saturday shooting in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 14 wounded, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 40, who is in critical condition after being shot in the head.
Civility came up constantly, partly because of Sarah Palin's Facebook page that famously featured a U.S. map with cross hairs superimposed on the districts of 20 House Democrats, including Giffords'. After the shooting, the graphic was removed and Palin offered condolences.
Some of her fellow conservatives, put on the defensive, lashed out at the new calls for civility in a rather uncivil fashion. "What this is all about is shutting down any and all political opposition and eventually criminalizing it," said an infuriated Rush Limbaugh. "Criminalizing policy differences at least when they differ from the Democrat Party agenda."
Now, now. No one of any note has called for the criminalizing of opinion and I seriously doubt that anyone will. Criminalizing opinions in our culture only makes heroic martyrs out of those who hold them. Free speech lives. So does free choice. Just as everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion, everyone also has the right to criticize the speaker.
That was the message of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who said Arizona has become a "mecca for intolerance and bigotry," according to the Arizona Republic, partly because of the "vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business."
Political pundit Glenn Beck took further umbrage at the sheriff's critique and, like Limbaugh, detected conspiracies against conservative talk. "This is something they have been wanting for a while," Beck said on his Monday radio broadcast. "The script has already been written."
In an e-mail to Palin, Beck suggested she "look into protection for your family," he said. "An attempt on you could bring the Republic down. There are nut jobs on all sides."
Yes, there are. But, as the horror, sadness and wild speculation surrounding the tragedy in Tucson is replaced by facts, we need to be honest about where we go from here.
First, let's call off the hounds in the hunt for the political leanings of the charged gunman, Jared Loughner. As much as pundits on the left and right have scratched for any hint of an affiliation with their opposites, the 22-year-old is registered as an independent voter in Pima County, the Washington Post reports. He voted in 2006 and 2008, but not at all in November.
Second, from the looks of things, the "lone wolf" label that law enforcers attach to terrorists who work alone should not be applied to Loughner. It only exaggerates his unearned bravado. A more appropriate description would be something like "sick puppy." The most serious questions raised by his tragic saga have to do with how mental health warnings could work better, how gun purchases by the insane can be prevented and why are extended gun clips legal?
As the fog of high emotions clears, the lasting iconic symbols of this tragedy will be innocents like 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. She had hoped to meet her congresswoman, Giffords, after being elected to her elementary school's student council. Instead she was gunned down and died.
Born on another ill-fated day, Sept. 11, 2001, Christina "came in on a tragedy and now she's gone out on a tragedy," her father John Green, told reporters. "But the nine years in between were very special."
Perhaps her violent death, like that of the four black girls who died in a racist church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, can be the sort of stunning event that brings Americans together, looking for new ways for us to all get along. That calls for a new civility, if we're not too afraid of it.