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"A little soul searching." That is what Clarence Dupnik, the Sheriff of Pima County -- and good friend of both Congresswoman Giffords and Judge John Roll -- said our country needs to engage in.

And while we don't know all the facts yet and the story is still unfolding, we know enough to know that we need more than a little soul searching.

The fact that the gunman is clearly mentally unbalanced does not absolve us of the responsibility to consider the atmosphere in which the shootings occurred. "Shootings of political figures are by definition 'political,'" writes James Fallows. "That's how the target came to public notice; it is why we say 'assassination' rather than plain murder."

And the atmosphere in which this horrible tragedy was born, nurtured, and carried to its wretched fruition is toxic. Of course, there are always going to be unbalanced people, just as there are always going to be viruses in our environment -- but what most determines whether those viruses make us sick is the strength of our immune system. When it is stressed and compromised, infections can easily take hold.

And there is no doubt that our collective immune system is worn down, making us more susceptible to the kind of infection that turned that Arizona parking lot into a killing field. While there has never been a golden age in our democracy's history, there have been many times in which our national immune system was much stronger.

"The press is our immune system," Jon Stewart said during his now-more-prescient-than-ever Rally to Restore Sanity. That's true, but I'd take it a step further: we are all the immune system of our democracy.

And this calamity should serve as a wake-up call that we need to bring more urgency to strengthening it. It's very easy, as we've seen over the last few years, to ignore the toxicity -- partly because we're swimming in it. But it's time to recognize the obvious: our society is in danger of coming apart at the seams -- from our overheated political rhetoric and crumbling infrastructure to our rising poverty and shrinking middle class.

This is not a call for passionate debate to come to a halt. But there is a huge difference between passionately disagreeing with your opponents and crudely demonizing them, between considering them as adversaries to be engaged and treating them as enemies to be targeted.

"The House of Representatives has already said they're not going to vote on repealing the health care law now," said Sen. Lamar Alexander on Sunday. "So we need to stop, pause, and reflect." He then added: "But then I think we're back to business."

Well, not so fast. This weekend's atrocity shouldn't simply be a crash on the side of the road that delays us for a few minutes before we put it in the rear-view mirror -- this should be a moment that changes the direction we're traveling in. The consequences of this should be more than simply a week's delay of the vote on the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." We need to recognize what has happened to our democracy and renew our efforts to fix it.

Today's moment of silence was poignant, and we are being urged to follow it by ratcheting down the tone of our political discourse. But that's not enough. Along with raising the politeness level, we must also have a real conversation about what kind of country we want to live in, and take practical, concrete action to create it.

Rage, paranoia, and division are not the only possible responses to the very legitimate anger millions of Americans -- on both sides of the political spectrum -- are feeling at the state of the country and the state of their lives. And the Arizona shootings put a spotlight on the need to redirect that anger, frustration, and despair, and use them to take action, and make life better for those who need help. We can choose connection rather than division. Understanding rather than fear. Reaching out rather than turning away.

In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton made a number of impassioned calls for taking a stand against reckless speech and behavior. "When there is talk of hatred," he said at a prayer service four days after the attack, "let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, Let us 'not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'"

I'd love to see President Obama use this moment to call on the country to find ways to "overcome evil with good." Americans, he said in a 2006 speech, "want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives." That purpose should be found in the shared national objective of rebuilding our communities and our connection to each other through everyday acts of compassion, generosity, and service.

"Our anger will either lead us to tap into our baser instincts or into the better angels of our nature. And nothing less than the future of our country rides on the decision," I wrote in September.

Given the baser instincts horrifyingly on display in Arizona on Saturday, that future is even more in question. So, as Sheriff Dupnik suggests, let's do "a little soul searching" -- and then let's get to work.

 
 
 

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