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Mark Bennett Opinion

January 16, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Built on Civility

Everyone deserves a basic level of respect

TERRE HAUTE — In the depths of the recession, Americans faced the temptation to lose respect for others’ livelihoods.

As presidents Bush and Obama urged bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, the public grew skeptical about whether U.S. autoworkers were overpaid and part of the problem. The financial markets imploded, and people’s investments and life savings tanked, causing us to doubt all bankers and planners. One by one, as industry after industry imposed layoffs or shut down completely, those employees and their occupations began to look expendable. If they resisted hefty pay cuts, furloughs and heavier workloads, those of us on the outside wondered what “those people” did all day anyway.

The recession’s aftershocks eventually reached public employees, and now school teachers are taking their turn at having their value scrutinized by outsiders.

Assessing our strengths and weaknesses is fair and wise. Turning against each other is altogether different, and yields little more than disrespect.

Last week, the nation mourned the deaths of six people and the wounding of 13 others at the hands of an apparently unstable 22-year-old gunman in Tucson, Ariz. The victims were attending a “Congress on Your Corner” event by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who authorities believe was the shooter’s primary target. Giffords, among the critically injured, remains hospitalized, recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

The now-jailed suspect’s motives remain a mystery. As President Obama said at a memorial service Wednesday in Arizona, “The truth is, none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack.” Still, the tragedy sparked a nationwide debate about America’s vitriolic political atmosphere. A moderate Democrat representing a conservative state, Giffords’ office was vandalized after she voted in favor of the health care reform act, and the opposition in last year’s campaign used militaristic images and language in seeking her defeat; now, much of the nation wonders if the tone of political disagreements has escalated too high during the past couple years.

Whether connected to this sad incident or not, that introspection needs to happen. Americans should reflect on our civility — our respect, or lack thereof, for each other. The line between responsible disagreements and incendiary behavior has been blurred.

Eight months ago, retired Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton — now the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University — took a concerned look at the volatility displayed at rallies and town hall meetings last year. The 79-year-old Hamilton, one of the most respected and reasonable people ever to serve on Capitol Hill, wrote that the public expressions of anti-government discontent were not “mere show.”

“Anger is nothing new in American politics,” Hamilton said, “but the sort of road-rage being directed at elected officials — public servants being spat upon, threatened with death, taunted with racial slurs — is deeply worrisome.

“The Senate’s sergeant-at-arms reported early in April that serious threats to members of Congress nearly tripled between the last three months of 2009 and the first three months of [2010],” Hamilton continued. “Many Americans now seem to think nothing of dropping hints of violence in an effort to rally support.”

After emphasizing that concerns about the reach and spending of government and the health care bill were “entirely legitimate,” Hamilton went on to say that “communications technology has made it easier for inciting rhetoric to spread rapidly, get amplified by public hotheads, and then be taken seriously by people on the verge of losing control.”

Again, Hamilton’s commentary was written last May — eight months ago.

Most of the world admires, and envies, Americans’ freedom to express their opinions and criticize their government. The concept of Jay Leno ribbing the president on late-night TV would be unimaginable in many countries. It’s part of our culture to laugh at ourselves and each other, and to question public officials. Mark Twain was a master of needling federal lawmakers, once writing, “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a congressman can.”

The rest of the planet also, though, marvels at the United States’ peaceful transitions of power, even as the people vote out one collection of lawmakers in favor of newcomers from an opposing party. That’s democracy, a form of government built on civility. Whether we’re an autoworker, bank loan officer, accountant, corporate executive, welder, third-grade teacher, real estate agent, bowling alley cashier or member of Congress, each one of us deserves a basic level of respect. Difficult as it is, this moment in history should remind us of that.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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