One year ago, the nation faced a civility crisis, borne on the explosive charges of bullets that rained on several people outside a shopping center in Tucson, among them Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Six people, including a judge and a little girl, died that day. The coverage since then has focused on Giffords' remarkable recovery and her gradual return to Washington — a feel-good story of perseverance and goodwill that has people of all political persuasions feeling happy.
It's easy to forget the immediate reaction that swirled through the air almost as soon as the smoke from the shots had settled — the civility crisis that never gained much traction. Some were quick to say the shooting was caused by angry right-wing rhetoric every bit as much as if the tea party had hypnotized the gunman Manchurian-candidate style and given him a code word to unleash his deadly torrent.
Even the Pima County sheriff in Arizona blamed it on his state's penchant for "hatred and bigotry."
Well, Arizona has no corner on that market, nor has the current generation invented it. America has been called a great experiment in part for its attempts to assimilate a variety of ethnic and political backgrounds under one united republic. But the Petri dish never has been particularly clean or orderly.
A nation founded on Christian principles has always had trouble discussing differences in the hushed and respectful tones worthy of church.
At various points in American history, violent acts have shocked the nation back to a sense of proportion. That was the case in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh loaded a truck with explosive fertilizer and destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He killed 168 people and injured more than 800.
Until that April 19th, a nationwide militia movement had been growing, filled with paranoia and conspiracy theories. McVeigh didn't belong to a militia, but he was a sympathizer, so his act was seen as an outgrowth of that rhetoric. His indiscriminate mass murder took the air out of that balloon. As the Chicago Tribune reported six years later, a lot of militias had disbanded, and those that remained were trying to remake their image.
It was the case way back in 1881, when a deeply divided Republican Party nominated James A. Garfield for president. He won, despite a "stalwart" faction of the party, led by N.Y. Sen. Roscoe Conkling, that opposed much that he stood for and made no secret of trying to force its members into Garfield's cabinet.
When Charles Guiteau unloaded a gun on the president in a Washington train station only a few weeks after inauguration, he announced, "I am a stalwart of the stalwarts…" He wasn't; he was a mentally disturbed drifter who had imagined himself entitled to an ambassadorship.
But no one needed talk radio in those days to spread the rumors and cast the blame. Conkling and his buddies were seen as responsible for the angry rhetoric that created a madman. The New York senator's career was over, and so were the stalwarts.
But the shooting in Tucson was not one of those moments. The pieces didn't fit. Jared Loughner, the gunman, was obsessed with words — not necessarily political ones — and with, friends said, his dislike of women in politics. He didn't like how Giffords dismissed his question, "What is government if words have no meaning?" He was like Charles Guiteau, only without the specific partisan script.
And above all, that initial thread of blame didn't resonate because neither the right nor the left can lay exclusive claim to incivility.
That does not mean, however, that Loughner's nonsensical question didn't contain a grain of truth. Words do, indeed, have meaning.10 comments on this story
A year later, there is little evidence to suggest political discussion has become more polite. Politicians still gain ground by going negative. A congressional "supercommittee" couldn't compromise for fear of what voters would think.
There is hope. An Allegheny College survey in 2010 found that 95 percent of Americans believe civility is important for democracy, and 87 percent believe it is possible to disagree respectfully about politics.
We shouldn't look for a tragedy to scare us into being nicer people. But we could use Giffords' recovery as a metaphor for how we alone have the power to make ourselves better.