Like many Americans, I watched the coverage of the tragic attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that claimed the lives of six innocent victims, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
In addition to the horror we all felt for the victims and their families, I could not help but examine the situation through my unique lens as an elected public official — especially one who has never been afraid to make controversial statements and engage the public on issues in a variety of ways.
Many on the left were quick to point to Sarah Palin’s political map with Giffords’ district denoted with crosshairs as some sort of clear evidence that a madman had taken her rhetoric literally and had decided to open fire.
Nearly everyone on the right quickly and vehemently denounced those who dared broach the subject for exploiting a tragedy for political purposes.
We will likely never know for sure whether the avalanche of negativity driving the political debate was a true factor in what happened, but we are now confronted with some delicate issues we simply cannot ignore.
First, let me be crystal clear: It is my personal opinion that the shooting suspect, Jared Loughner, has mental health issues and was not simply following some subliminal message embedded in conservative talking points. The shooting was the act of a madman, and I am not partisan or naïve enough to come to any other conclusion.
Having said that, I do firmly believe the overwhelming negativity toward our elected officials — this often-manufactured anger that has deminished public trust in government nearly to the point of no return — has fostered an environment where acts of madmen cannot be nearly as shocking as we would like to think.
And that blame lies in no small part at the feet of the media — liberal and conservative, local and national. I base this theory on my own personal experiences in public office.
Do you have any idea of how difficult it is to get media attention for a positive story when you are an elected official? Over the past four years, I have introduced 38 pieces of legislation, two of which were signed into law.
Getting anything positive about any of my proposals or ideas is often such an exercise in futility that I have wondered why I bother issuing press releases anymore.
Instead of using column inches to talk about things that will actually improve people’s lives, I get contacted by reporters for articles about my divorce, the time I wrecked my Jeep, back taxes on businesses I used to co-own, and a video made by one of my interns starring the fish who live in a tank in my office.
With some notable exceptions, the media is usually only interested in stories depicting elected leaders in a negative or embarrassing light and that have no real impact on the people we represent.
Good news just isn’t sexy.
So when the overwhelming majority of the truly relevant information about our political process is run through a filter that automatically assumes all politicians are corrupt and fueled only by self-promotion and self-interest, how can anyone be surprised that the public feels anything less than barely restrained contempt for us?
This isn’t intended to be a pity party or a blame session, because Lord knows there is plenty of blame to go around. But instead of blaming each other, everyone who chooses to insert his or her thoughts and words into the public debate should be looking at himself or herself, because we have all allowed the tone of our political discourse to tread the line between heated and dangerous.
Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, an elected official, a member of the media or just a concerned citizen who wants to beheard, we must realize that our words do in fact have consequences and conduct ourselves accordingly.
Forget about assigning blame for this most recent act of senseless violence and instead focus on making sure we are all doing everything in our power to prevent the next one from ever taking place.
In case you are interested Jesse, NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine is conducting an online discussion this week on civility. We think GovLoopers would be a good group to share opinions and observations about the tone and value of public discourse in America. We have two questions up right now, a third one will be posted tomorrow. Please post your responses on our Facebook page.
Today’s question: Last weekend’s shooting of an Arizona congresswoman has led to discussion about
the safety of public officials at public events. Do you believe this will lead to a change in the types, structure or frequency of public events held by officeholders?
What are your thoughts?
Ms Dorsch, a discussion on civility and manners in general is good.
Why the violence against elected officials? Are people getting that angry. Do they really feel there is no other course of action so violence becomes the best option? Its a horrible thought, worse if its true. In my opinon (IMO) fixable.
Mr. White, I like your story and whish to take it one step further – engage the public. Scary thought for its not a pretty site. From volunteer groups to city council to representatives at “town hall” meetings its not pretty but they do diffuse problems when people feel they are being heard.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” has research showing that people who like their doctor are less likely to sue than those who do not know or like their doctor. Its human nature to cut a friend slack – but not do the same to a stranger.
As for legislation – one observation. Other than the division of motor vehicles, nothing in my high school or college concerned teaching me federal or state law. Nada. I do not know all this wondrous legislation. I thank you for some more laws. Laws I do not know about nor will ever read. Why? Look at how much legislation there is without a daily guide showing the huge workload congress is under. That’s me – find out what others think. I could be wrong. Others may feel totally connected and happy with their representative and government.
Happy or angry : more interaction between people and government will help. Well IMO.