In Aftermath of Shootings, a Timely Call to Service

01/17/2011 08:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Amy B. Dean Fellow, Century Foundation; Co-author, 'A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement'

Twenty-five years ago, Congress established a federal holiday honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national day of service. His message of tolerance and working to make our community better for all is especially timely as we try to cope with the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Arizona. There has been much talk about the nasty, intolerant, and sometimes hateful tone that has infected our politics of late. No doubt, there is an urgent need for more civil discourse in our country. But I think Dr. King would tell us that there is a more important message that we must take from this senseless tragedy, and that is the importance of honoring public service.

Acts of violence against elected officials can have a real chilling effect on those who are thinking about entering public life. We cannot afford to let an atmosphere of fear and intimidation reign. If we are going to solve the urgent problems that are facing our country today, we need our most dedicated, talented, and persevering citizens to consider public service -- and to feel that choice is both a safe and honored one.

So often we talk about people running for office for self-serving reasons. We think of people acting out of vanity or self-interest -- seeking to see themselves in the limelight, not to advance the public good. And certainly, it is not irrational to think this. Contemporary Washington at its worst -- full of bickering and name calling, with politicians failing to address the problems people are confronting in their everyday lives -- seems to be far from the pursuit of any higher purpose.

But most of us can remember a time when people responded to the call of public service out of a desire to help repair our communities. We were inspired by Dr. King and others to serve to the common good. Believe it or not, many of those who enter public life today still are driven by such higher motivation.

It is very sad to hear talking heads like Glenn Beck make the "common good" into a negative. In reality, our country was founded on a vision of the common good -- an idea that Americans, in all their diversity, were part of a community, aspiring toward common goals of prosperity, freedom, and happiness. Up until Watergate, most elected leaders spoke to this common good and acted to advance it.

Since Watergate, we've suffered from spiritual energy crisis. Partisanship has been so entrenched and the tone of our debate so shrill that people can no longer identify the common ground in public discussion.

This is truly sad, and it is politically unacceptable. For this reason, it is more important than ever that we find and honor new voices to enter the debate, people willing to disrupt their lives and enter into public service, bringing with them a renewed sense of America's common purpose.

Gabby Giffords had many things going for her in her life when she started her career. She was a Fulbright scholar and talented businesswoman with a supportive and loving family. She clearly had many paths available to her other than entering public service. Taking one of those other paths probably would have allowed her to spend more time with her family and to enjoy more of the activities that we think of as part of "the good life." Her decision to serve the public, first in the state legislature and then in Congress was a sacrifice, one that we should hold in high regard.

My fear is that this tragedy will make potential leaders think twice about leaving the comforts of private life and making sacrifices for the common good. We cannot allow that to happen. If ever there was a moment when our elected officials needed to go beyond grandstanding and embrace true bipartisanship, it is on this point.

The shooting of Gabby Giffords in Arizona recalls the death of Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of Santiago, Mexico, who was killed by local drug traffickers last summer. Like Giffords, Cavazos was a young public official, just 38. He was a successful lawyer and a devoted father. He knew that serving as the city's mayor would be dangerous, but he chose to do so anyway because he wanted his kids to be able to build lives in Santiago and not have to flee the rule of the drug cartels. Unlike so many politicians, he was honest, honorable, and could not be paid off by the traffickers. He was dedicated to serving the common good. And he ultimately paid a terrible price for it.

There are more stories like this than we know. Following the Arizona shootings, I hope we walk away with the conviction that the sacrifices of such public servants as Giffords and Cavazos will not be in vain. They will not be in vain if we can reset our understanding of what leadership means in this country and recover our sense of common purpose. We must call on leaders on both sides of the aisle not just to speak to the sadness of this event, but to take responsibility for putting political dialogue in America back on the highest track -- so that if, God forbid, if such a tragedy does happen again, we can hold society blameless based on how we have mended our ways.

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. You can follow Amy on twitter at @amybdean or visit her website at