A year ago, we introduced a new school curriculum, Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond, with this urgent call: "There is a pressing need to change the tenor of public debate from shouts and slurs to something more reasoned."
The tragedy in Tucson this weekend reminds us that it's a call that politicians and pundits would do well to heed.
We may never get a clear picture of what was going through the confused mind of the Tucson gunman. But as my colleague Mark Potok explained on NPR this morning, with all the vitriol on the airwaves, it's not surprising that someone has taken deadly aim at an elected official.
Tea Party darlings like Sharron Angle talk about using "second amendment remedies" to change the course of the country. The shameless Glenn Beck feeds the lunatic fringe with talk of the government herding Americans into FEMA concentration camps and of imminent violence from mysterious forces "from the left." Sarah Palin uses phrases like "don't retreat, reload" and shows the districts of various Democrats in Congress, including that of Tucson's Gabrielle Giffords, in the crosshairs.
The problem isn't so much a lack of politeness. We should expect sharp elbows and a healthy degree of ridicule to be thrown around by those in the political arena. The problem is the incendiary rhetoric, with its violence-laced metaphors, and the spinning of paranoid fantasies. The problem is the non-stop demonization one hears from political opportunists trolling for votes and their media allies trolling for ratings.
The sheriff in Tucson put it this way: "When you look at unbalanced people — how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain people's mouths about tearing down the government — the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous."
With six dead and 14 wounded, the sheriff would have been justified in using much stronger terms.
Politicians of both parties have condemned the attack and begun to ask themselves questions about the overheated rhetoric that may have contributed to it. Speaker Boehner has postponed the normal business of the House for the week so that he and his colleagues can reflect on what should be done.
Let us all hope that the week of reflection is more than a brief interlude in what has become a vicious political season.