A Nation Absent Civility

Posted on 10 January 2011

On Saturday, January 8, 2011, as many of us on the East Coast were in the midst of weekend errands and events, reports from Arizona indicated that Gabrielle Giffords, Congresswoman from Arizona’s 8th congressional district had been assassinated during a political event outside a local grocery store.  Early reports proved false as the Congresswoman survived a shot to the head and remained in critical condition following surgery.  Nonetheless, at that event, 20 people were shot and 6 died of their wounds, including a 9-year old girl.

The gunman, identified by authorities as Jared Loughner, is a 22-year old who has been described as a social outcast and displayed prior behavioral problems as recently as September past when he was expelled from Pima Community College for causing disruptions in class and posting a bizarre YouTube video (see video below) in which he professes the College to be illegal under the U.S. Constitution.

Deeply distrustful of government and authority, Loughner apparently had been considering or planning the attack over the past number of weeks, purchasing a 9mm Glock handgun on November 30th, 2010 and posting a cryptic message foretelling the shootings on his MySpace page very early the morning of the assassination attempt.  Misguided and apparently deranged, Loughner fits the classic “loner” profile that has been the mark of so many individuals throughout recorded history who have perpetrated pernicious and deadly acts against their fellow men.

Yet, before we chalk up this tragedy to the actions of a sole lunatic, one must question in this instance whether the lack of civility in our political discourse and those who employ toxic rhetoric in branding legitimate political opposition as “extremism” bear some of the blame for the shootings.  We live in an age in which our nation has experienced sweeping change and political upheaval the likes of which have not been experienced since the Industrial Revolution.  Technology and the advent of the Information Age have increased the segmentation of American society and culture.  Today, individuals can view websites, read book and periodicals, and watch television programming that conforms strictly to their particular social, cultural, and political perspectives.

As Americans have become immersed in their own little worlds, they have become less tolerant of viewpoints different from their own.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of political thought.  Unlike a half century ago, political discourse is dominated by extremes.  Liberals (or Progressives as some prefer to be classified) and Conservatives battle it out on virtually every major issue facing our country.  To win the support of a more moderate electorate at large, they demonize the positions held by their opponents.

Does any thinking person really believe that either George W. Bush or Barack Obama ascended to the Presidency with the intent of destroying the United States of America or our way of life?  Yet, if you place credence in the discourse of the extremes of the political spectrum, you would conclude that either or both might be guilty.  It has been said that “you are what you eat.”  Well, if you consume a steady diet of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Fox News, it is likely that your worldview and political thinking will be radically different than those viewing Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and MSNBC.  And, for a disturbed individual, a firm belief in the extremism spouted by many in politics and the media may be just the impetus needed to motivate him to act – from a deluded sense of righteousness or patriotism.

Perhaps in the wake of this latest tragedy, we should all – regardless of our relative profiles or celebrity – commit to restoring civility to all forms of communication, for none of us has a monopoly on the truth.  Doing so would be the most meaningful tribute paid the deceased and those who will suffer permanent scars from this senseless shooting.




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