The news out of Arizona last Saturday was horrifying. When I first heard the news on my car radio, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was reported dead, along with six others. As other reports surfaced, it turned out that Congresswoman Giffords was alive, but in grave condition. Sadly, the reports of the others killed were correct. A simple event for constituent outreach had turned into an abbatoir, chaotic and bloody. The nation’s prayers go out to the injured and their families, and mourning for those slain.
For elected officials at any level – local, state, or federal – being in the public eye goes with the territory. Web sites, newspapers, and television all feature photographs and interviews with elected officials, and people often recognize, albeit sometimes faintly, their elected representatives. We’re not hassled by the paparazzi like movie stars and celebrities, but often are hailed at the grocery store, the bank, library, or carry-out by constituents who want to say hello or discuss a particular problem of concern to them. Once, I was reclining in a dentist’s chair in Annandale, waiting for Novocain to take effect, when another patient recognized me and came into the room to talk. It was a little awkward, since I really couldn’t respond to her question with my frozen jaw. I don’t think she took offense, however.
In order to represent their districts, elected officials must interact with the people who live there, and learn about their hopes, fears, and concerns. Sometimes the issue is very personal and concrete, like education for their children or safe streets in their neighborhood. Other times the issue is more global and intangible, like social justice or civil rights. Whatever the issue, it is important to hear many opinions as you move forward to cast a vote on an issue. The decision may not be what one side or the other wants, but an informed conclusion must be based on weighing a variety of viewpoints, and then, ultimately, making a judgment. That preparation sounds like was what Congresswoman Giffords was trying to accomplish with her Congress on the Corner appearance in Tucson – providing an opportunity for constituents to chat with her informally, not in a stuffy meeting room but at a shopping center sidewalk – on a sunny Saturday morning.
If there is any lesson to be learned from this tragedy, it may be that political rhetoric must be reduced. The 2010 campaign was divisive and negative. Baseless charges were hurled about by many campaigns, regardless of party affiliation, with almost constant television ads and robotic phone calls. The idea was to win, seemingly without any regard for the truth. The first amendment to the Constitution (which was read, apparently abridged, by the new Congress on its opening day last week) guarantees freedom of speech, and shrill voices often use that right as a validation for their comments. What is forgotten is that words mean something. Terms like “armed and dangerous,” “taking out” an elected official (the context wasn’t a dinner date!), “RELOAD,” and “violent overthrow of the government,” used in the 2010 political campaigns, have no place in civic dialogue, and we all would be well advised to “mind our tongues,” as my grandmother cautioned.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org