The recent shooting of a U.S. Congresswoman, Federal Judge and other innocent bystanders in Arizona is both sobering and tragic. Because Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was hosting a community event at the time of the shooting, the role of politics in this tragedy has led to significant soul searching. Regardless of the motives of the shooter, analyzing the impact of political discourse on the lives of others merits serious consideration. Whether it’s Rep. Joe Wilson shouting out, “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to Congress or liberal and conservative media pundits calling each other names on a nightly basis, the lines that were once never crossed are increasingly being erased.

In a country where name calling and exaggerated rhetoric routinely beat out the facts in political debate, the past few years have seen an ever escalating use of violent, derogatory imagery when speaking of political opponents. Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, picked up on this right away, voicing fears that many others quickly echoed:

The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous […] I think it’s time as a country that we need to do a little soul searching, because the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people the radio business and some people in the TV business, and what we see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in, and I think it’s time that we do the soul searching.

That soul searching must include an emphasis on who are we as a nation, how we solve the problems that plague us and how we can ensure everyone feels engaged in the solution-making—even if the ultimate solution is a compromise that lands between what each side wants. Clearly this is something that can start with the individual, but ultimately our nation looks to its leaders—in our government, communities and on our televisions—as examples.

Fortunately the gravity of the Arizona events seems to have hit home for some of our leaders. For example, on CNN Sunday morning, Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), morning were calling for more respect in public dialogue, noting that while no one can assume anything about the alleged shooter’s deranged motivation, the “tenor of the debate” still matters.

I think, as Sen. Durbin said on Sunday, we ought to cool it, tone it down, treat each other with great respect, respect each other’s ideas and even on difficult issues like immigration or taxes or health care law, do our best not to inflame passions.

Emotions remain too raw and the events too recent for us to know whether Saturday’s tragedy will cause the nation to pause and recalibrate its decency meter. We may never know what made Congresswoman Giffords the target of a deranged mind. But the fact that so many so quickly sought to explain these actions as a consequence of our declining civility is telling, as it suggests that we have known all along that the path we are going down is fraught with danger. Pointing fingers or pitting one group against another in trying to move forward merely continues the cycle. Instead, let’s reflect on how we talk about issues in America—the tone, civility and level of respect in public debate. That’s the first step. Living the example is the next.

In her own words, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords called for higher level of discourse in America:

[…] in the years that some of my colleagues have served – 20, 30 years – they’ve never seen it like this. We have to work out our problems by negotiating, working together, hopefully Democrats and Republicans […] the reality is that we’ve got to focus on the policy, focus on the process, but leaders – community leaders, not just political leaders – have to stand back when things get too fired up and say, ‘Whoa, let’s take a step back here.’

Photo by CarbonNYC.