Giffords shooting: What the Civil War can teach us about political restraint
The past year in US politics has been full of more alienation and polarization than at any time since 1861, all of it now capped off in the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. As in 1861, today's divide has opened up over a single deep question. But this fundamental collision of values doesn't mean violence is inevitable.
One hundred and fifty years ago, American passions over politics blew off the lids we usually keep in place on our political debates and turned a war of words into a war of arms. By its end, the US Civil War had taken the lives of 620,000 Americans – the population equivalent of 6 million today. And despite the emancipation of more than 3 million slaves, the war ended up replacing slavery with a century's worth of racist Jim Crow laws.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The reasons for war were many and complicated, but the fundamental issue was how to define liberty. "We all declare for liberty," Abraham Lincoln said in 1864, but after that, all similarity evaporated. "With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor," Lincoln said.
Four years of war finally settled that question.
I have the uneasy sensation, however, that the lids are rattling again. The past year in US politics has been full of more alienation and polarization than at any time since 1861, all of it now capped off hellishly in the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona. And just as in 1861, that divide has opened up over a single deep question. Then, the question was "What makes for liberty?" In 2011, it is "What makes for justice?"
A fundamental collision of values
This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with "don't ask, don't tell" and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Today's passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.