Arizona: When our words matter

This weekend’s Arizona shootings should be taken as a shot across our nation’s bow – and nothing less. The country has reached a new boiling point when it comes to over-heated political rhetoric. At issue: how will we react? Will different sides in our politics use this as another excuse to assess more blame to the other side, or will we rise to the occasion? You and I can make this choice.

No sooner had the news alert about the shootings hit television and the web, than jockeying for political position over whom to blame began. Some left-leaning groups sought to pin blame on Tea Partyers and on Sarah Palin and her (reprehensible) use of cross-hairs in targeting certain congressional districts. Various right-leaning groups replied in kind. The reality is that we’ve let things go so far that there’s no shortage of willing participants on both the left and right who are engaged in this utter craziness.

Too many people of all political stripes have adopted and spread words that incite anger, fear and a deep restlessness within the country. Rather than offer any hope, these individuals reflect the insecure, coward-filled taunts of playground bullies. Their goal seems more to corner their “opponents” and raise a ruckus, than to ensure the country moves ahead. Their rhetoric inflames people’s fears rather than illuminate a path forward. One wonders what these individuals and groups care about beyond their own positioning. Is it worth it?

It’s impossible to know if the Arizona shootings were directly linked to this over-heated politics. But this weekend’s tragedy definitely fits an unmistakable trend line: such mean-spiritedness makes the public square toxic, leaves too little room to get real work done, and allows those who remain to believe their only option is to join in the madness.

But what happens when our very own response to the situation further deepens this dilemma? When all we add as individuals (and the groups we lead) is more fuel to the fire? When our own knee-jerk reactions only perpetuate the situation? Take a moment and think about your own responses to the shootings. Did you seek to lash out, apportion blame, or find a way for this to be “their” fault?

On the other hand, simply being polite to one another is not the antidote to these current events either. Significant issues are at stake, and they require real discussion and debate. This won’t be easy. Many of us are angry. We hear all the political rhetoric from “the other side” (whichever side the “other” is) and we find ourselves incredulous and exasperated. At times, we want to strike back.  We want our side to win. Sometimes we even feel the desire within ourselves to pummel the other side. But is it true that people from different camps share nothing in common?

They do – we do. As I travel the country, it’s clear to me that people from all sides share common aspirations. In fact, people in communities each and every day are finding ways to come together around their challenges. None of this is particularly easy, but it’s not impossible. We know this is the case, but are we willing to listen to ourselves?

At the crux of this matter is an urgent need to restore our confidence in our collective ability to make public life and politics work. The most important thing we can do, then, is to demonstrate that we can change our ways. To set a different trajectory – which is what I am talking about here – will require that we check our own heated rhetoric when talking about “the other side.” We must highlight those places where strange bedfellows have come together to get good things done. We must stand next to leaders – especially those with whom we disagree – when they act with integrity.

But let’s not fool ourselves; this will require each of us to stop blaming the other side for the Arizona shooting, and for the larger negative conditions in the country. I’m not suggesting that any of us should give up our values, or what we care deeply about. Strong and passionate arguments have always been part of the American tradition. Let’s keep it that way.

But using Arizona as fodder for more political posturing and complaints is a sure-fire way to land us in deeper trouble. There’s more than enough blame to go around for the current situation. Those people who want to change the trajectory of the country must be brave – even if others do not join you, you must step forward and show that there is a different path we can take. For durable, lasting change will come only from the country itself – that’s you and me, and why don’t we each grab some others on the way.