When Jared Loughner fired a rain of bullets into a Tuscon Safeway parking lot on Jan. 8, critically wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), discussion about lack of civility in American politics became rampant, even though Loughner’s motive for shooting Giffords wasn’t immediately clear.
More recently, the late April 8 deal struck by President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to stave off an impending government shutdown prevented the closing of the site of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War 150 years ago on the anniversary of the Confederate bombardment that started the war.
Had the Democrats and Republicans not given enough ground to reach a deal on a stopgap measure to keep the government operating while hammering out the terms of a longer term deal that would take the U.S. into October, the site would have been closed with unfortunate timing. It would have made it impossible for historians and history buffs alike to travel to the site of the beginning of the war that cost the most American lives, according to a Wikipedia article on the American Civil War for the April 9 sesquicentennial.
It also would have cancelled Washington, D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Parade and festival, and would have shut down many government services. In addition, the military would have only received partial paychecks during the period that the federal government was not operating.
The anniversary is significant for one reason: It marked the one division between Americans that led to armed conflict. Whether people in 1861 agreed with slavery or not, it was an important casus belli that led to brothers fighting brothers and Americans fighting Americans.
So what does the anniversary of the Civil War mean in 2011? Americans have been in the throes of a civil war of words at least since 2000, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore in a controversial election that saw the official outcome decided by a divided Supreme Court. Even though he wrote for the minority, then-Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens summed up the feelings of many when he penned an opinion that included the following: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
While people on both sides of the aisle differed over whether or not Bush “stole” the election, the battle lines began to be drawn in 2000. Even the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history — the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. — only briefly cast aside partisan bickering. By 2004, much debate began to circulate regarding “red” states, voting for President Bush and “blue” states voting for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), leading to impassioned rhetoric on both sides.
In 2008, we were treated to more of the same sort of bombast between Obama, then the junior Democratic senator from Illinois and John McCain, the senior Republican senator from Arizona. Vice Presidential candidates Joe Biden (then a Democratic senator from Delaware) and then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also fanned the flames with their words.
The nearly 10-year period between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and today have demonstrated demonizing of people on “the other side of the aisle” to the point where people who disagreed with then-President Bush were labeled unpatriotic or un-American while Bush’s intelligence was challenged by many on the left. I once wrote a column for a political website in which I laid out my opposition to the war in Iraq. That column led to an e-mail response from someone who called me a coward because I dared challenge Bush. My response to that was that it takes more courage for someone to stand against the tide than it does to follow the tide.
To make this already long column into a shorter tl;dr version, we may not be fighting a civil war with guns and bayonets. However, we are fighting a civil war with sharp words and an inability to listen to one another or offer compromise unless we do so for our own political gain. Even if one side “wins” either war, the 620,000 dead soldiers and countless dead civilians from the 1861-65 Civil War and the lack of civility between people left and right have demonstrated that there can be no real winners in any civil war.