Moral Courage in Public Life

A number of recent, and tragic, shootings may foster a perception that anyone who steps into the public realm in American society - be it president, judge, minister, teacher, local official, sports referee, or flight attendant - risks violence by those they serve.

Last Friday's killings in Atlanta of a judge, a stenographer, a sheriff's deputy, and a customs agent is the latest example. Another occurred on Sunday when a man opened fire at a church service near Milwaukee - perhaps out of anger over a sermon - killing the minister, six others, and himself. Two weeks ago, federal Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow's husband and mother were killed in Chicago by a man who didn't like a ruling the judge gave him. His intended target was the judge.

A democratic community needs people in public jobs with the moral courage to make decisions they know could make other people angry. Following the killings of her husband and mother, Judge Lefkow told the Chicago Sun-Times that "nobody is going to intimidate me off of my duty." Her efforts, like many of those making tough decisions that adversely affect individuals, deserve recognition.

These kinds of high-profile tragedies shouldn't deter Americans from taking public-service jobs. Indeed, the entire nation should be demanding more civility, respect, and deference toward those working for the public, while at the same time insisting on better security in such professions.

The US Marshal Service reports a "dramatic increase" in the number of threats against those working in the federal justice system. Air rage on commercial flights, and violent, even deadly, eruptions at sports events also seem on the uptick. At public schools, there are 22 violent incidents for every 1,000 teachers per year.

Nothing can justify such violence, but society also needs to look at why more people lash out at public workers when a decision doesn't go their way. Has retribution become acceptable? Has winning by any means become the norm? Have young people not been taught how to live within the system while changing it peacefully?

For their part, citizens can renew their commitment to the broader public good, and not retreat into private life. This can be as simple as when college students stand up and tell a few misdirected peers hurling tasteless, personal taunts at a visiting team member to "hush up," and "have some class." Real fans did as much recently at a basketball game between North Carolina State and Wake Forest.

Author C.S. Lewis had it right: "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point."

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