A call for civility in the Arizona aftermath

Thursday, January 13, 2011; 8:40 PM

IT SHOULDN'T BE surprising that much of the national conversation sparked by the terrible shootings just outside Tucson last Saturday quickly descended into partisan vitriol. It shouldn't even be a surprise that President Obama's inspirational, scrupulously nonpartisan speech Wednesday prompted immediate partisan argument - He was rebuking the left! No, the right! - and political analysis: Did he help himself? Will his poll numbers rise?

Not surprising, because the assumptions of bad faith on the other side and the habits of instant point-tallying are, by now, deeply ingrained in our political culture. And yet, the cynicism of that culture has not been the only, or even the dominant, strain in America's response to the rampage that wounded a member of Congress, killed one of her staff and five other people and injured a dozen more. The Tucson memorial service Wednesday evening reflected a refusal to be cowed or deterred from what House Speaker John A. Boehner earlier called the "resolve to carry on the dialogue of democracy"; the boisterousness that some found discordant we took to be a defiant insistence on community. And the statesmanlike responses of national leaders - most notably Mr. Boehner, a Republican, and Mr. Obama, a Democrat - have lent dignity and could even bring meaning to what is, on its face, a senseless tragedy.

"Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath," Mr. Obama rightly warned. These killings were not caused, as we have said from the start, by the partisan bitterness of our political culture. But they could nonetheless inspire us, Mr. Obama said, to honor the victims by rising above that bitterness: "And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps 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."

The shootings will, and should, prompt debate on a host of issues: gun control; mental health care; community and isolation in the modern world. Using the tragedy to promote policies in which advocates passionately believe is not exploiting the victims. If anything, it reflects a natural desire to give purpose to seemingly purposeless loss.

But what Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama are asking is that these debates proceed without assuming that those who disagree are any less patriotic or virtuous - or any less affected by the tragedy. "I want to live up to her expectations," Mr. Obama said of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. "I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it." By abandoning the royal "we," the president suggested that none of us is above the need for soul-searching. We in the media should pay heed.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company