Debate must move beyond partisan politics

January 15, 2011 

Everything that has been said about the warmth and promise of Gabrielle Giffords is true. I worked with her after she arrived in Washington in 2007 and gained a seat on the House Committee on Science and Technology. The last time I saw Gabrielle was after I retired as committee director and returned to Washington for a visit. She gave me a hug and one of her smiles, not an unusual greeting from someone as warm and gracious as Gabrielle.

So for me, the shooting is a personal tragedy. But the tragedy of her attempted assassination and the carnage surrounding it needs to be moved outside of partisan conversation. We can't learn from it while pointing fingers.

We don't know whether heated political discourse, with its nuanced violent words and images contributed to Jared Loughner's actions. There is scant evidence at this time that his twisted thoughts and actions were spurred by anything other than his hate-filled madness. So let's pause and ask an important question: Can hateful speech and suggestively violent rhetoric lead to such acts in the future?

Words matter. If not, why are the airwaves filled 24/7 with words and images meant to sway us, to move us to action whether to buy product or join a campaign bandwagon? And as Gabrielle Giffords said recently, words have consequences.

We all seek words to inspire the best in us -- from the pulpit, from the page, the airwaves and from leaders of our body politic. Words can inspire us to do great things we otherwise would not do, and our country is the better for it. So it follows that words and images might also inspire the dark voices that inhabit those impressionable among us predisposed to acts of rage fueled by twisted fantasies.

No doubt the lunatic fringe can come unhinged and act without hateful inspiration, but why take the chance? If words matter and sometimes have consequences, it's time to rethink their impact beyond the tragedy in Tucson -- because in Tucson, it's too late.

Chuck Atkins was the chief of staff for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology from 2005 to 2010, served on the staffs of two members of Congress and was a Congressional Staff Senior Fellow. He currently lives in Bluffton.

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