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America's Year of Living Dangerously

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From the day after President Obama took office, our political debate has deteriorated from rancorous to poisonous. Glenn Beck's early cry of "racism," Michelle Bachmann's Conspiracy Overdrive and Rush Limbaugh and Congressional Republicans' decision to assume the role of disloyal opposition would plant the seeds for the recent assassination threats on Twitter, protesters hurling bigotry and spitting upon members of Congress, and attacks on the offices of Congressional Democrats.

Unfortunately this is not our nation's first "Year of Living Dangerously," which only confirms the saying that the one thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. Nearly a half century ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren responded to similar vitriol that surrounded President Kennedy, prior to his assassination, to ask "is it too much to hope that [this tragedy] might even soften the hearts of those who would themselves recoil from assassination, but who do not shrink from spreading the venom which kindles thoughts of it in others?"

A generation later, tragedy struck again. The seeds planted by actions such as Congressional Republicans' boasting that President Clinton was not their President and talk show host G. Gordon Liddy giving instructions on how to shoot government officials, grew into a deadly harvest that took the lives of 168 innocent Americans in Oklahoma City.

Now as we stand on the precipice once again, the very moment when leaders have a duty to exercise and urge restraint, not one Republican has stepped forward to strongly denounce these actions and those behind it. In fact, it has been just the opposite. Sarah Palin has urged her supporters to "reload" and the Tea Party movement has called for a nationwide rally on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. While the left certainly has had its own moments of shrillness (although often directed towards other Democrats), it has at least avoided insinuations of violence.

Months before Oklahoma City, Steve Erickson wrote a brilliant essay entitled "American Weimar" in which he warned

History is clear that democracy cannot long navigate a sea of national rage. Untempered by. . . open-mindedness, fury eventually consumes democracy rather than nourishes it, because it overwhelms our tolerance [and] our basic faith in democracy.

Erickson was alarmed by the "latent totalitarianism" of the Republican Party driven by people who believed that those that do not share their views were not real Americans and, in fact, were the enemy. Erickson feared that the nation would "abdicate . . . the meaning of America" to the totalitarian right.

That is why I was especially disturbed to see that Congresswoman Giffords was one of the Democrats whose office was attacked. I have met the Congresswoman on several occasions and can say without hesitation that what this nation needs now is more Gabby Giffords. She is a former Fulbright scholar and Kennedy School fellow who returned home to Tucson to rescue her family tire business before becoming the youngest woman elected to the Arizona Senate. It only takes a few minutes with her to be able see her passion and commitment to service and recognize that she is Jimmy Stewart in a skirt. She is also the only member of Congress married to an active-duty member of the Armed Forces, as her husband is Navy Cpt. Mark Kelly who flew 39 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm and is about to fly his fourth Space Shuttle mission.

What can be more American than a successful businesswoman and overachiever serving her country alongside a war hero/astronaut? Are the citizens of greater Tucson or we as a nation going to abdicate the definition of who is a legitimate American or what elected officials deserve respect to a domestic terrorist?

Only two years ago, John McCain refused to allow his campaign to be a platform for bigotry by telling supporters that then-Senator Obama was "a decent family man" who they need not fear as president. Now it is time for House Minority Leader Boehner to back away from his "Armageddon" fear mongering and tell us who most represents American values - Gabby Giffords or a terrorist? Who should we be most proud of, civil rights hero John Lewis or the tea bag protester who called him a "nigger"? It is not enough for Boehner to say these actions are wrong, if he leaves unchecked the hatred his party so diligently pollinated.

There is no doubt that Congresswoman Giffords, like all members of Congress, will be held accountable for her vote this November, but all of us will be accountable for what we do now to prevent these seeds of hate from taking root in this dangerous year.