POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 12, 2011
In the shooting attack that seriously wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others, we've been admonished about the dangers of looking for political lessons in the actions of a mentally deranged man.
It's true that we might never be sure what motivated the 22-year-old suspect, Jared Loughner, but it would be foolish not to take the opportunity to reflect on the toxic political environment in which this tragedy occurred.
He didn't shoot a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker; he shot a U.S. congresswoman as she performed the duties of her office. It was an act of political violence in a climate increasingly dominated by the shouts of trigger-happy hotheads. We need to talk about that.
Giffords' political adversaries marked her with cross hairs and talked about "targeting" her and "reloading." Her election opponent invited supporters to join him in firing a fully automatic M14 rifle to show their determination to take Giffords out.
Angry demonstrators have waved signs at anti-government rallies declaring, "We came unarmed ... this time." A major-party U.S. Senate candidate in neighboring Nevada spoke of "Second Amendment remedies" if things didn't work out at the polls.
Giffords herself expressed concern about the potential consequences of the angry rhetoric and violent symbolism that surrounds us.
Much of the hostility she faced was because she supported President Barack Obama's health care reforms.
House Republicans named their bill to reverse last year's law the "Repeal the Job Killing Health Care Law Act" — an unusually incendiary title that was clearly intended to further inflame those who already are overly inflamed.
The apparently mentally ill suspect hatched his plans in a state in which the governor and legislature ordered sharp funding cuts in treatment for the mentally ill — and made a lot of political hay out of doing so.
It's a state that has made it easier than nearly any other for mentally deranged people to legally obtain and carry concealed weapons.
It might turn out that the hateful rhetoric that has come to define our political culture wasn't what drove Loughner, but the poisonous climate was the first thing nearly everybody thought of when they heard the news.
That tells us we have a problem; few doubt that there will be more political violence if we don't find a way to tone it down.
We can only hope that this painful national tragedy becomes a tipping point in returning us to the more civil and respectful form of political competition that made our country a great democracy.
Our chances of surviving as a free and peaceful society might well depend on whether we're able to recognize the lessons that stare us in the face.