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January 14, 2011
Holding Fire

I held off writing about the mass murder in Tucson last weekend, for several reasons.  One is that I am teaching this week -- up and out too early in the morning to write then, too tired at the end of the day to write then.  The other, better reason, though, is that I wanted to reflect a bit before beginning.

While doing that, I read essays by others who jumped in more promptly.  I learned a lot from them, most notably from the unsurprising distribution of responses.   What I learned were really two things I already knew, and they are these:  for the most part, terrible events like this confirm people in the opinions they already hold.  And the second one is that you can't scold or nag people into compassion or civility.

But does this mean that there is no hope for our public discourse? That we are doomed to the current snarky political landscape, that our current civic ugliness must just go on and on, world without end? I don't think so. But there are a few things we must keep in mind.

The first is that outcome matters. Few politicians ever apologize. Ever. They are like teenagers-- you may live and die without ever hearing anything from your adolescent like "You know, Mom, I've been thinking, and I've decided that you were right after all. I'm really sorry for what I said.". Ditto most pols: they won't readily admit in public to having behaved badly.

But that doesn't mean they might not change their behavior. Maybe this is what we must look and pray for. Perhaps it is more important to look to the future, to a chance to do it better next time, than to demand and get an apology, firing back if you don't get one in the moment. Perhaps the apology comes later. Maybe it never comes. But people often show, rather than tell, their repentance. Yes, this is a lot less satisfying than a cleansing admission of wrongdoing would be. But sometimes it's all the market will bear.

The second is a cliche by now, but cliches only become that because they're true: We must become the change we wish to see in the world. I must be even-handed myself if I wish even-handedness from others, dignified if I wish to see more dignity, conciliatory if i want to see more conciliation. I must model what I want to see.

Since the funerals began, there has been a small but discernible change in tone. Elegy and resolve for something better now seem more important than scoring points. Since the president's address, those who have sought to continue fire have begun to seem quaint, somehow. A little stale.

Might we have turned a corner, finally? Could our physical and verbal violence really fall from fashion? It could. It can. It might. Pray that it will. With God, nothing will be impossible.
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