By Karen Hughes
Friday, January 14, 2011; 8:00 PM
When I traveled the world representing the United States during the George W. Bush administration, I was often confronted by people who wanted to blame the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on American foreign policy.
U.S. support for Israel, along with the suffering of the Palestinian people, they told me, had spawned the resentment and anger that resulted in the attacks on our country.
No, I always answered, you cannot blame the murder of innocent people on any grievance, no matter how legitimate. The only organization and people responsible for Sept. 11 are al-Qaeda and the 19 hijackers who carried out its murderous mission.
I've been reminded of that argument as I've listened to attempts to blame the alleged murderous acts of a twisted young man in Tucson on the tenor of America's political debate. No, you cannot blame this violence on the shrill voices of politicians and pundits - from the right or the left.
And yet, as President Obama deftly reminded us in his speech on Wednesday night, times of tragedy can become times of national examination. And America needs some soul-searching.
Unlike the spirit of unity that emerged in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the reaction to the tragedy in Tucson seems to have only deepened the chasm in our sharply divided country. We haven't come together to support the victims and condemn this assault on a bedrock of our political system: the right of citizens to assemble and question their public officials. Instead, our national conversation has devolved into accusations about whom, other than the murderer himself, might be responsible.
I am deeply concerned about the anger and intolerance in our politics and the lack of respect for different points of view. This is taking place not only between the left and the right, and Republicans and Democrats, but among members of my own party.
I saw this divisiveness recently in my state of Texas when Rep. Joe Straus ran for reelection as state House speaker. Straus, whom I work with as an adviser, is a lifelong Republican who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Yet this election season, he suffered vicious attacks from a handful of political activists who questioned his conservative credentials. In a particularly offensive reference to his Jewish faith, some critics suggested that he did not have "Christian values." The overwhelming majority of his fellow Republicans in the House supported him, but were harassed and threatened with political retribution. Since when did revenge become a Christian value?
Straus did not respond to his misguided critics with similar vitriol but called for greater civility in politics. "Division, threats of retribution, attacks on people's religious beliefs and distortions of people's records have no place in this House," he said, to a standing ovation from his colleagues, after being reelected 132 to 15.
I am a vocal Republican who feels strongly about my conservative principles. But that doesn't mean I can't listen to another point of view or give credit when it is due, even to a political leader with whom I largely disagree.
Obama's speech in Tucson was a difficult one, given the rancor in the country. His words transcended the ugliness of the moment and sought to heal. And while words cannot be blamed for violent acts, words are powerful things. Scripture counsels that we will be held accountable for every careless one. Our words can lift up or tear down, bring us together or rip us apart. Our political debates can and should be spirited. But our words should seek to convince, not to bludgeon.
Obama did what American presidents should do in times of national trauma: He called us to our better selves. Now it's up to the rest of us.
Karen Hughes, a global vice chair at Burson-Marsteller, served as counselor to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002 and as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2005 to 2007.