President Barack Obama is often criticized in this space, so we think it only fair to point out when he does something praiseworthy. In his address Wednesday evening in Tucson, Ariz., commemorating the senseless killing of six people, including a federal judge, and the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Obama performed admirably.
He spoke plainly but evocatively in tribute to the dead and wounded; he singled out the heroes of the tragedy for appropriate praise; and, perhaps most important, he diplomatically but forcefully called out all who seek to gain political advantage from such a dark day. Considering the constant distraction of inappropriate yelling and applauding from the audience, Obama’s performance was masterful.
As he consoled the mourners at the University of Arizona, Obama lamented the state of affairs in which “we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do.” He reminded his listeners across the nation that it is always “important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
He added that “if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.”
Obama made precisely the right point: Americans ought to never lose their appreciation for the miracle of democratic civility that most often characterizes our national public policy discourse.
There have been, and are, many nations on Earth where political assassinations are disturbingly frequent, often undertaken strictly for reasons of political advantage by political rivals. The heartfelt horror that all Americans felt when they heard Saturday’s news from Tucson serves as a reminder that no matter how strongly we disagree, and no matter how heated our arguments become, none of us wishes genuine harm on those with whom we disagree.
Civility of this kind is a national tradition in America that extends back before the founding. And it is not inconsistent with our equally important national tradition of heated argument and the determination to punish officials who forget from whom their power is derived.
In 1795, after John Jay had negotiated an extremely unpopular treaty with Great Britain, he said he could travel from Philadelphia to Boston at night by the light of his own burning effigies. A free society cannot thrive without some level of healthy argument — even rancor — over political issues. But it cannot survive without the fundamental understanding that the Tucson tragedy has highlighted — those in America we debate are opponents, not enemies.