The second weekend of 2011 was dominated by dire news from Tucson, Ariz., where a lone gunman shot down 19 people – killing six – in an attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. For any American, political assassination, successful or otherwise, should provoke horror and outrage. For those of us old enough to remember Nov. 22, 1963, those feelings will be redoubled.
It was hardly surprising, a few weeks back, when the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. After all, he had committed the unpardonable sin of questioning Pakistan’s brutal blasphemy law. When the assassin made his first court appearance, crowds of the faithful showered him with rose petals.
In America, assassins are not yet revered as heroes. But, given the bitterness of our political discourse, it’s only a matter of time. The tone of some radio talk-shows and political blogs leaves civility entirely behind. It’s even worse with the anonymously-funded attack ads, which immerse us all in a toxic stew of accusations of immorality, criminality and even behavior approaching treason, almost all of them false.
Given this environment, it’s remarkable that normal, decent people – as Giffords, by all accounts, is – still choose to seek public office. Yet I doubt the Congresswoman thought for a moment that she risked being killed for her very moderate voting record, even in contemporary Arizona.
But this is our political reality, and we all bear responsibility. Consider the losses. A respected Federal judge. A young Congressional aide. A 9-year-old girl born on Sept. 11, 2001 – yes, that day – who had just been elected to her school’s student council and had come to meet a real Congresswoman.
Nineteen in all, dead and wounded, including a delightful young woman whose promising political career is almost certainly ended.
We didn’t pull the trigger. But when we participate in, tolerate or simply ignore the degeneration of our political discourse to the level that has become so familiar, how can we pretend that weaker minds than ours will not actually take this discourse seriously? That the less-educated or more unstable among us might actually think that our Republic, and our freedoms, are in danger because our duly elected representatives don’t vote the way we prefer?
To a rational mind, it’s incredible that a nation with more than 220 years of constitutional government, a country that has neither a neo-fascist party nor a socialist party, but only two tepid coalitions of the center-left and center-right, dominated by corporate money, is actually in danger of sinking into tyranny.
But merely because we ourselves are too sensible to take our rabid political discourse seriously, we cannot shrug off the Tucson killings. Not everyone is sensible. Not everyone is sane. Crazy talk, around crazy people, can lead to crazy actions. And in our society, even crazy people have access to weapons that can kill dozens in a matter of seconds.
We need to take responsibility for this. We need to change things. And we can.
The three most significant contributors to the present, toxic political environment can all be changed without amending the Constitution.
First, the present system of redistricting creates one-party districts where ideological extremism is rewarded. We must demand that gerrymandering be replaced by a system featuring non-partisan redistricting commissions, such as those in Iowa and California. Competitive districts elect moderate candidates committed to working across party lines. Single-party districts elect crazies. It’s hard to understand why any sane person would prefer a system that favors lunatics over rational candidates.
Second, we must demand laws requiring that every political contribution be fully disclosed. The freedom of speech belongs to citizens with the courage to speak up, but the First Amendment conveys no rights upon cowards who spew hatred and lies from the dark corners of anonymity.
Third, we need at least one additional political party, to give Americans more than an either-or choice. Limited choices foster the bitter sense of having no choice at all. A wider range of options might well tone down the anger that comes from feeling that no one in politics really speaks for me.
The present state of our political discourse reminds me of the final scene in The Mission, a brilliant, 1986 film set in 18th century South America. (Directed by Roland Joffé from a Robert Bolt script, with music by Ennio Morricone, and starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, it’s truly unforgettable.)
In this scene, a high official and an archbishop discuss the moral compromises made to accommodate the enslavement of local Indians, and the consequent slaughter of several Jesuit missionaries.
“We must work in the world, your eminence,” says the official. “The world is thus.”
The archbishop replies, “No... Thus have we made the world... thus have I made it.”
It is time we made our political world more civil, more decent – more American.