The raw horror of Saturday's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has already become shorthand. It stings, and Arizona's lax gun laws may partly be to blame, concludes the New York Times. It stings, and this is what you get when you incite the lesser angels, argue Democrats and Republicans alike.
"We all know that there are unstable and potentially dangerous people among us," writes former Sen. Gary Hart. "To repeatedly appeal to their basest instincts is to invite and welcome their predictable violence."
Hart is spot on, but a gut check is needed to divine the exploiters. In determining whether facts are cited authentically, historians employ the "drunk leaning on a lamppost" test: Is the light getting used for support or for illumination? Both?
The Tucson tragedy will insinuate itself in the collective memory of a new generation. Younger citizens, those recharged by the 2008 Obama campaign, may now think twice about a career in public service. Or perhaps they'll feel more emboldened to give back.
Generation Xers replay the clouded image of President Ford wincing at the echo of Sara Jane Moore's missed gunshot or John Hinckley Jr.'s rampage outside the Washington Hilton Hotel that nearly killed President Reagan. Both were senseless acts, however uncrowded by politics. All the while, we knew about the age of political assassinations that extended from President Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr. to the unsolved Shoreline murder of the Urban League's Edwin Pratt. Politics as a career? A mostly honorable but dangerous profession, we Xers thought.
In the Pacific Northwest the coarsening of political speech, and what flows from it, is no abstraction. This winter my Seattle commuter bus will not be adorned with an "Israeli War Crimes" banner. That's because last month King County Executive Dow Constantine put the kibosh on an ad blitz underwritten by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. Yes, it was a retroactive decision that felt heavy-handed. Yes, given the potential for escalating divisions and anti-Semitic backlash, I'm grateful. It would have defined political-hate speech down and made it normative. It might have (with a double emphasis on "might") invited the violence of someone unstable.
So I'll use Saturday's raw horror as shorthand. I hope it's more for illumination than support.