A Time to Cool the Rhetoric

On Saturday morning, before she was shot, Gabrielle Giffords was performing one of her most vital duties as a public servant. She was meeting with the public.

The Arizona congresswoman knew there were risks; last March, the windows of her office were shattered after her vote for health care reform. During her hotly contested campaign for reelection, gun gimmicks and imagery abounded.

On a map on Sarah Palin's political action committee's website, Giffords' district was among a number that had been depicted with cross hairs. Her election opponent, meanwhile, held a campaign event in which participants were offered the opportunity to fire a fully loaded M-16 with him, a symbol of his assault on Giffords' seat.

But none of this deterred Giffords from convening another of her "Congress on Your Corner" events. For she, like virtually every public official, understands the imperative of direct interaction with constituents.

During my 35 years in elected office in Los Angeles, I've been to hundreds of neighborhood meetings and town halls. Only when I'm in the community can I hear -- and feel -- the aspirations and frustrations of my constituents. Without this kind of relationship, I'd be left with middlemen of pundits and pollsters to help me gauge the public pulse -- a very poor substitute for face-to-face encounters.

I feel certain that this weekend's horrific shooting spree will not deter most public officials from meeting with large, sometimes unruly gatherings of constituents. Indeed, should our leaders become reluctant or fearful to engage the public they represent, our political system itself would be put at risk.

To be sure, it's clear from all accounts that Giffords' alleged assailant, who killed 6 people in a matter of seconds, was disturbed long before the bloodshed. He was rejected for military service, and he was expelled from community college for his bizarre behaviors. His disjointed and paranoid screeds against the government speak for themselves. (The fact that he was able to easily and legally buy an automatic handgun is a topic for another day soon.)

But I also believe that it's possible troubled individuals teetering on the edge of mayhem can be pushed into action by incendiary language mostly intended to win elections or amass TV ratings, words that create a climate of hostility, aggression and violence.

Congresswoman Giffords, who remains in critical condition, may have put it best last spring when she was asked about her district being targeted with cross hairs on Palin's election map.

"When people do that," Giffords said, "they've got to realize there's consequences to that."

For the time being, I'd suggest that politicians and media personalities who exploit public fears and advance their careers through the use of vitriol, ratchet down the rhetoric and discipline themselves as we all reflect on the events that led to this national tragedy.