The news of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and bystanders brings up all kinds of thoughts and feelings. One of the most important, for me, is to remember that while those who hold public office certainly benefit from their service, they also accept some very serious sacrifices. That’s something we always need to remember, and for which we need to honor and thank our public officials – even those with whom we disagree.
Normally, those sacrifices are more along the lines of suffering long hours, limited privacy, personal attacks and more complaints than thanks. Every once in a while, those sacrifices become much more severe. Politicians, whatever else you may say about them – and we’ve all said a lot – are people with the courage to put themselves on the line.
We’ve been lucky that the US has had one of the safer political cultures in the world; the odds that you will be beaten up or killed for your beliefs, for most of American history, have been low. When that positive trend has been interrupted with political violence, as with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, it has produced profound shock in a country that (wrongly) likes to view itself as exempt from the worst in human nature.
I most certainly hope that we are not entering another era of such horrific violence. It is essential to ensure that our rhetoric and approach to politics treats those in the public arena as human beings, not monsters, and absolutely avoids and condemns all instigations to violence. Rhetoric and conspiracy theories characterizing the government and its members as alien things out to hurt the common man, and sanctioning or even hinting at the use of violence, have no place in our nation’s political dialogue.
It’s easy to get swept up in our political beliefs and forget that our opponents (and even our erstwhile allies) are human beings who deserve to be treated as such. I think about the Jewish tradition during the Passover ceremony of spilling several drops of wine to honor and remember that many of the enemy in the Passover story – the Egyptians – lost their lives and need to be mourned and remembered too. Those of us who care about and comment on politics – on all sides – need to similarly remember the humanity of the politicians we criticize.
I hope that those on the other side of the political fence will think more after this incident – about the gun-related imagery and expressions they increasingly use, their tendency to demonize public officials and government in general, the wacko conspiracy theories that they either encourage or wink at so frequently. And I hope they consider whether their political agendas would be better served without that bitter, dangerous thrust.
It was just a few months ago that Jon Stewart held his rally “to restore sanity” and incidents like the attack on Giffords make it clear that sanity is something of which our political dialogue could use a whole lot more. Let’s hope that today’s tragedy causes more people to pull back and, not by any means cease to express their political beliefs, but simply learn to express these beliefs in a way that helps make us our country whole rather than brutally tearing it apart.
And let’s honor those who serve in public office for playing the role they play, a role that is so often unappreciated. Even as we watch their every move like hawks – our solemn responsibility as members of a democracy – we must remember that they are people, and braver ones than most.