Some months ago in a column on American disunion, I invoked the question Rodney King made famous 19 years ago: “Can we all get along?” One of my conservative readers answered in a word: No.
It is with that response in mind that I write to applaud you for embracing an idea floated by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall. It’s a simple thing, really: Instead of the divided seating that usually marks these affairs – Democrats over here, Republicans over there – he wants members of both parties to mix together when President Obama delivers his State of the Union address today.
Of course, it says something about the state of the union that this proposal is even needed. But the idea is a good one and I hope all of you support it. It is true some might write it off as symbolism. It is also true that symbolism matters.
Especially now, as we mourn the dead and encourage the survivors of the massacre in Tucson in which a mentally unstable gunman allegedly tried to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It’s a tragedy that has inspired many of us to reconsider the violent, vitriolic and divisive political rhetoric that has become so commonplace.
While such rhetoric did not cause – even indirectly – the carnage in Arizona, that reconsideration is still appropriate. By way of explanation, I invite you to ponder a controversy from the ’90s. As you may recall, some people, outraged by a violent heavy metal song called “Cop Killer” by a group called Body Count, sought to censor and boycott it out of existence, many saying it would cause cop killings.
I considered it simplistic to think the average kid would hear that song and suddenly decide to go shoot a cop. I agreed with Body Count’s lead singer, the rapper Ice-T, when he said that if somebody aspires to kill a police officer, “all I did was make him a theme song.”
But at the same time, I wanted to ask him: Does that make it OK? Do you really think you should be providing that individual’s theme song? Does it not, “should” it not, give you pause to find yourself so loudly in sync with someone that hateful and demented?
The same chain of logic – and the same questions – apply here. I do not believe alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner was an average guy who, upon hearing some violent rhetoric from Sarah Palin, suddenly snapped and decided to shoot Giffords. But at the same time, I want to ask Palin: Should you really be providing that individual’s theme music?
Actually, Congress, it is more important to ask you.
Let’s face it, Sarah Palin, like Ice-T, is an entertainer, a profession they have in common with many supposed pundits. And while entertainers are not exempt from social responsibility, one has to remember that their primary imperative is to entertain.
You have – or at least, are supposed to have – a higher calling. But one would not know that from the poison some of you have spouted. One would not know it from hearing Rep. Joe Wilson cry out “You lie!” as the president was speaking. One would not know it from seeing you cheer on hecklers in the gallery during the health care debate. One would not know it from the hesitance of some of you to dissociate from certain radio pundits who cross all lines of propriety and respect.
So Udall’s gesture, modest as it is, is welcome because it suggests the capacity for statesmanship is not yet completely gone from you. Too many of you behave as if you think you were elected to get re-elected or elected to rouse the rabble. Gentlemen and ladies, you were elected to do just one thing: lead the nation. The “whole” nation.
May I hope today’s planned gesture means some of you are at last ready to accept that obligation? If so, I suspect I speak for many when I say: it’s about time.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.