After the Arizona shootings, can Obama—or anyone—bring America back from the brink?

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Jan. 9 2011 9:03 PM

The Paucity of Hope

After the Arizona shootings, can Obama—or anyone—bring America back from the brink?

See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Who will be the Daniel Hernandez of this political moment? In the chaos that followed the shots outside an Arizona supermarket on Saturday, the young intern calmly sought out his boss and held her upright, pressing her wound and probably saving the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The political conversation could use that combination of wisdom and action. So far, the voices have been defensive, accusatory or noncommittal. The first two are unhelpful and the third is ineffective.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This tragedy has prompted not reflection but just another round of sparring. Some liberals quick to point the finger are linking 22-year-old shooter Jared Loughner to the Tea Party—showing the same lack of restraint and tendency to demonize their ideological opponents that they accuse the right of having. Some conservatives, meanwhile, were more concerned with the political consequences of this tragedy than with the possible impact of their rhetoric.

Is this a moment for the president to give a big speech? The suggestion feels old-hat. We turn to the president for everything. Gene Healy's book The Cult of the Presidency starts by poking fun at Mike Huckabee's promise to lead a "revival of our national soul" if he becomes president. If that's included in the job description, argues Healey, everything is. More relevant to this moment, perhaps, is the fact that President Obama's status as the nation's top Democrat might make it hard for a lot of people to hear what he says.

But Obama has some qualifications that go beyond his office. One of the themes of his campaign was the promise to restore civility and restraint to politics. This weekend's shooting may be waking a lot of people up to how far we have to go on both scores. Obama has been trying to lead in that direction for years now—he wrote a book about the lack of trust that has corroded the public debate and gave a thoughtful speech about the power of restraint in particular with regard to abortion. The speech had something in short supply at the moment: honest self-reflection, including the admission of partial fault.

In the first hours of news after the shooting, there was no evidence of a connection between Loughner and the ideology of the right, but the accusations came anyway. Voices on the left started arguing the right was to blame for using the imagery of guns and war in relation to politics. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a fellow Arizona Democrat, blamed Palin. On Facebook this weekend the No. 1 question users are asking is: "Is Sarah Palin to blame?" Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, an elected Democrat, held a news conference Saturday and validated this view when he blamed the anti-government rhetoric for the shooting.

Conservatives were fighting back. Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips sent an e-mail that read,"In a moment, a leftist lunatic destroyed a half a dozen lives." Other conservatives started passing around a commercial in which Democrats used crosshair images and Obama's quote that Democrats will bring a gun to a knife fight. Sarah Palin's camp rushed to defend her use of crosshair symbols on a map targeting congressional districts, which included the one Giffords represented. "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights," said Palin spokeswoman Rebecca Mansour.

The idea that the left and right have both used violent images suggests a false equivalence. A few scattered examples from Democrats can't match the power of gun imagery on the right or the regular use of incendiary language about tyranny and insurrection. Politico's Jonathan Martin pointed out that Palin herself  referred to the cross-hairs  on her map as a "bull's-eye." But that doesn't mean Glenn Beck or Palin are to blame for this shooting. *

Perhaps the saving voice at this moment will come from a conservative who can make this distinction. Politico found a "senior Republican senator" who said, "There is a need for some reflection here—what is too far now?" What's admirable here is that this senator is willing to broach the idea that heated language on the right can be a problem without validating the idea that it caused the shooting. What's depressing is that this senator would not go on the record. It proves that the political penalty remains high for saying anything—not matter how obvious—that might inflame the armies of no restraint.

Any speech now, from the president or a top Republican, would have to go beyond merely saying, "Tone down the rhetoric." This doesn't mean that sanitizing political speech is the answer. Passion is inevitable and even necessary. (Besides which, there's no workable way to tamp it down. You can't station a TSA agent at the front of every debate.)

Still, thinking first in terms of restraint rather than attack, in crafting a political message or in a political debate, might mean taking a breath before you assume the worst about your opponent's motives. It might mean a pause to consider the danger of your own knee-jerk view of their ideas. Maybe they're actually capable of reasonable thought.

In honor of the victims of the shooting, Congress will observe a moment of silence tomorrow afternoon. Fitting but insufficient. What we need is a permanent moment of restraint.

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Correction, Jan. 10, 2011: This article originally misspelled Glenn Beck's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)