01/10/2011 04:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Words Have Consequences

It was a relaxed Saturday afternoon, until my neighbor told me the news: A shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona had killed six people and critically injured a congresswoman.

The bullets that went flying shattered more than innocent lives -- they splintered the glass bubble that we live in. We assume in our daily lives that the world is both safe and sane. Otherwise, we could not carry on.

Several days later, I still can't stop thinking about Representative Gabrielle Giffords as she is fighting for her life. The dead and wounded are not just numbers -- 20 people shot -- they are real people: Judge John Roll, a nine-year old girl who was there to learn about politics, a dedicated staff member, and concerned constituents.

It's easy to conclude that the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was just one highly disturbed guy, that this tragedy could have happened anywhere, anytime.

I don't think so. I agree with the Pima County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, who said that "vitriol" has infected political discourse. One example is Sarah Palin's now infamous website where she put the names of congressmen and women into her gun sights. Giffords, who was one of the targeted, said prophetically in an interview that "there's consequences to that action."

The political environment we create matters because a disturbed person cannot always tell the difference between explosive rhetoric and explosive actions. Possibly, he thought he was doing the country a favor by acting out his fantasies. We don't know. But we do know that we have to turn down the volume and return to something that sounds old fashioned but is fundamental to democracy -- it's called civil discourse.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, both parties and the media are responding with appropriate-sounding concern. The question is, will they carry out their expressed good intentions by treating those with whom they disagree with greater respect? One example of the lack of decorum was evident in last year's State of the Union speech when a congressman shouted "liar." at President Obama. What kind of example did that set?

Our right to disagree is precious but fragile. The best way to protect and preserve it is to let the other side speak without demonizing them or destroying their right to be heard. Such civil exchanges are the heart beat of democracy -- essential to keeping it alive.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.