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January 27, 2015

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For kinder, gentler nation, we need to act

It’s our responsibility to bring civility to the forefront again

We don’t need to be a kinder, gentler nation. We already are. What we need to be is a little smarter.

Americans, for the most part, are good and decent people. That is the way we see ourselves, that is the way we want to be seen and that is the way others see us. We know the upside of decency and goodness. But, as is always the case with a good upside, there is a downside, too.

In matters foreign, the downside of our being a country that lives by the rule of law and the golden rule is that our enemies know how to take advantage of us. They don’t play by our rules nor are they hampered by such concepts of decency, respect for innocent life and responsible membership in the human family. That’s why we sometimes abhor the necessary things we must do when it is time to enter the fray.

In matters domestic, it is even more difficult to live in the realm of the gentle and the kind. Not only are our laws far more strict in the way we protect our freedom and liberty, but also the opportunity for abuse at the hands of charlatans and crazy people is that much greater.

Witness the horrendous attack in Tucson last weekend in which six innocent Americans were killed, 14 injured and countless thousands of others traumatized by the actions of a person for whom words like paranoid, deranged and crazy help the rest of us understand the action but do nothing to bring peace to those directly affected.

That kind of senseless violence just doesn’t compute well for people who try to believe and want to believe in the goodness of mankind. As a result, we have to be able to put those events into some kind of context so we can carry on with our own lives still believing in the better angels.

I listened to President Barack Obama’s address Wednesday night at the McKale Center at the University of Arizona. I also watched the reactions of the people who had crowded into that hall for a memorial service that honored the fallen and gave hope for those in recovery. From all I could see and hear, the president struck just the right tone and said just the right things to give those people — the folks most directly affected by the tragedy — some reason and perspective as they tried to understand what had happened.

In doing so, President Obama decried those on the political left and right who have been trying to make something more out of these killings than they apparently are, and, in so doing, sought the kind of civility of thought and actions that would honor those who died. In short, he called for the same thing others have been yearning for years — more civility in our public discourse.

At the risk of doing what our president asked each of us not to do, I will contrast his speech Wednesday evening with the self-absorbed, over-the-top reaction that Sarah Palin had just a few hours earlier. Obviously tired of being blamed for the deaths of those innocents in Tucson — yes, there were critics who placed the blame squarely on Palin’s shoulders and Sharron Angle’s, too — the former vice-presidential candidate, who may want to be a presidential candidate, lashed out at those who would cast blame. She did so, though, in a most unusual and, frankly, distastefully thoughtless and self-serving way.

There is no reason to further explain, I will leave that to others. My point is simply to contrast the style and the words of two people who have sought and received attention from the American people. President Obama seeking unity of purpose, on the one hand, and Sarah Palin seeking some personal absolution on the other.

It has been noteworthy and heartening, though, these past few days that politicians on both sides of the aisle have all mouthed the words and thoughts of civility. It is hard to find a politician who doesn’t call for the kind of political dialogue that would befit a nation of kinder and gentler people — although before November it would have been hard to find one who practiced what he is now preaching.

I believe, however, that we are just fooling ourselves if we think those who hold public office automatically will make the changes required and desired by the voters and sought by the president Wednesday.

First of all, our Constitution anticipated a rather raucous and unseemly political dialogue taking place, especially during election season. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, especially when speaking to government, is the best example of that wisdom.

Second, the political scientists among us have proved beyond a shadow of doubt that negative speech, negative advertising and the negative nature of our political discourse actually works when someone is trying to get elected or trying to motivate American public opinion. As long as the reward for outrageous words and pictures (cross hairs over congressional districts when talking to gun owners and the use of “Second Amendment remedies” if the ballot box doesn’t work when talking to the same crowd) is the belief and the reality of winning elections, those who seek public office and those who advise them will act accordingly.

As usual in this country, if the American people want something to change, if we want a more civil society, if we want to show the world and ourselves that being kinder and being gentler will have its rewards, then we have to do it ourselves.

If we want the politicians to act like grown-ups, then we have to let them know we won’t vote for those who act like children. If we want those running for office to find solutions to problems and not create more problems with their divisive rhetoric, then we have to act like adults and punish those who refuse to grow up or grow beyond the name-calling.

And if we want to be able to encourage our children to seek a life of public service — in much the same way as 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green was excited to pursue — then we have to make it safe for them to do so and not create an environment that does the opposite.

In that respect, using words in the political process that exemplify killing, cutting funding for mental health, refusing to accept the fact that bad people with automatic weapons couldn’t possibly have been something our Founding Fathers wanted to protect and, yes, vilifying those who seek public office, is not the way to live a kinder and gentler life. And we do ourselves no good in blaming others (politicians and the media, for example) for allowing that to happen.

In the final analysis, the media wouldn’t print and the politicians wouldn’t say anything that the people of this country didn’t want them to print or say. The fact that we respond so well and so readily — like lemmings — to evil words and evil deeds means that we really don’t want to change.

I am torn in this regard. I don’t want to change when it comes to dealing with foreign enemies. In fact, we could stand to get a whole lot tougher in the way we treat those who want to do us harm.

But on the domestic front? Here I side with President Obama. We can be better, we can act better and we can have better. But first we must insist that we do better ourselves.

Little Christina died while trying to be the kind of American we all want to be when we are children. Somehow, adult Americans have lost sight of that dream, the one she had when she was cut down.

And somehow, and soon, we have to pursue that dream again.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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  1. Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!" Sarah Palin tweet @SarahPalinUSA

    " ... if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out." Sharon Angle, Nevada

    2008/ Jim Adkisson, 58, entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and shot to death two church members and wounded six more before he was wrestled to the ground as he tried to reload.

    "Adkisson targeted the church, [Investigator Steve Still wrote] 'because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets.'

    2009/ Richard Poplawski, 23, armed with an assault rigle, met officers at the doorway and shot two of them in the head immediately, An officer who tried to help the two also was killed. Poplawski, armed with an assault rifle and two other guns, was paranoid about the Obama administration taking people's guns away -- a claim by the NRA. Poplawski feared "the Obama gun ban that's on the way" and "didn't like our rights being infringed upon," said Edward Perkovic, his best friend.

    2010/ A pilot furious with the Internal Revenue Service crashed his small plane into an Austin, Texas, office building where 200 federal tax employees worked.

    2010/ Byron Williams, 45, reportedly had been on his way last summer to kill individuals at the liberal nonprofit group the Tides Foundation and at the ACLU San Francisco office when he engaged in a shootout with Highway Patrol officers.

    The Tides Foundation had been attacked in the media, particularly by Fox News host Glenn Beck. Williams' mother stated he had decided to act after he learned on television "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items."

    2010/ An anti-government father and son armed with an AK 47 shoot and kill Two West Memphis police officers during a traffic stop. Two other law enforcement officers were shot and injured in a separate shootout with the same suspects.

    2010/ The last of nine people indicted in a plot to kill police officers to hopefully set off an anti-government uprising was arrested at a home in Hillsdale County, Mich. The group, known as Hutaree, was planning to kill police officers and then bomb their funeral caravan using "IEDs."

  2. "Americans, for the most part, are good and decent people. That is the way we see ourselves, that is the way we want to be seen and that is the way others see us."

    Greenspun -- you are completely wrong.

    We are currently this planet's most aggressive imperialist regime, we've invaded at least two countries we have little excuse for occupying. No wonder the world hates us. Domestically We the People have become We the Herd waiting to be told what to do, how to think, what we should be like and act. This is hardly the time to be nice and friendly to anyone and everyone. Especially those in uniform who want to search and grope us just to get on with the trips we bought and paid for. More important, those who put them in uniform and charge them to violate our liberties deserve to be despised, not rewarded!

    "I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902--1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents." -- Major General Smedley Butler, a Marine and one of only 19 people to be TWICE awarded the Medal of Honor, from a 1935 issue of the socialist magazine "Common Sense"

  3. KillerB
    I hardly credit the socialist magazine published in 1935 as a source of factual news and unbiased opinion.

    The pilot was left wing, despised Bush..

  4. Mr. Greenspun:
    I was impressed by this statement.
    "In matters foreign, the downside of our being a country that lives by the rule of law and the golden rule is that our enemies know how to take advantage of us. They don't play by our rules nor are they hampered by such concepts of decency, respect for innocent life and responsible membership in the human family. That's why we sometimes abhor the necessary things we must do when it is time to enter the fray."

  5. xtra -- it's a quote from our nation's true warriors, someone who knew the truth. After being honorably discharged Major General Butler became a vocal critic of war and actually wrote a pamphlet titled "War is a Racket." You can easily find it with a short Google search.

    Are you suggesting we should all read and watch and listen to the usual "patriotic" cheerleaders? That's propaganda and it's not for me, but here's a quote describing that mindset.

    "The Fuhrer is always right." -- Joachim von Ribbentrop, the 1939 Konigsberg address



  7. KillerB
    1935? War is a Racket? I suppose WWII proves this point..

  8. KillerB
    Christians have pondered a "kindler gentler nation" for 2011 years...
    The study of war is the study of history..
    You know..talking about War ..Everyone knows all about it..but talking about War is like talking about Gravity
    O'Reilly was slammed because he said something about tides..and everyone started saying "O..we know all about tides. It is gravity..ho ho ho, we know it all.."..but there is an article in the New York Times about gravity..because the further out you get..dark energy, three body discover you don't know jack..
    Here is the article..for the ones who know how simple it all is and we know it all

  9. "1935? War is a Racket? I suppose WWII proves this point."

    "Christians have pondered a "kindler gentler nation" for 2011 years...The study of war is the study of history.."

    xtra -- from what I've seen, the nature of war as Butler describes it hasn't changed. For your second point, the history of christianity is a history of slaughter. Like all human institutions, it seems. Just Google victims of christianity and you'll see what I mean.

    "Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth." -- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

  10. Hey Rob, kudos for opening up comments on this column.