Our first concern in the wake of the horrendous shootings in Arizona ought to be for the victims and their families; our thoughts and prayers are with them. The violence that sent Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to the hospital, killed six and injured 12 others will scar the survivors and all the victims’ families, friends, and communities for years to come.
In a society as robustly talkative as ours, it is natural for people to step back and try to impose meaning on so traumatic an event — even if it was simply the deranged act of a deeply troubled young man. Without knowing the motivations of the alleged shooter this is all speculative, and it is far too early to try to draw political conclusions from this tragedy.
Yet as a former member of Congress I do have something to say about the shootings’ aftermath. The personal tragedies have been awful enough; as a nation we also have to worry about a political tragedy, quiet and slow-moving but no less damaging for that. I’m talking about weakening further the bond between us and our elected representatives.
Our democracy depends on members of Congress being able to mingle freely with the people they serve. Yes, they have a lot of responsibilities in Washington that go with the job, but for these to have any meaning in a representative democracy they have to be rooted back home. It’s in their discussions with ordinary Americans that members do their most important work — at formal town halls, in stops by cafes, in speeches at VFW halls or visits to community groups, in impromptu conversations and at organized “listening sessions” like the “Congress on your Corner” event that Congresswoman Giffords was hosting.
These are where they get a glimpse of what’s on people’s minds and how strongly they feel about it; get alerted to issues they may not have known about; get questioned and challenged on their political stances; and have a chance to explain both their own and the Congress’ thinking. Without this kind of two-way education, representative democracy simply wouldn’t work.
Members of Congress know this. That is why they take care to hold such events as frequently as possible, despite the pressures of fundraising, legislating, trying to keep some semblance of a personal life — and the awareness of possible trouble. They long ago learned to live with threats — the FBI has investigated hundreds of them over the past decade — even though it is never easy to go out in public after you’ve received one. Yet they’ve continued to be as accessible as possible, because that is the only way they can do their jobs properly.
Now, despite some members’ protestations that they won’t let it happen, some sort of chill may well settle over the give-and-take between members of Congress and their constituents. It won’t be obvious; no elected representative is going to announce, “I’m cutting down on my public appearances.” But there will almost certainly be fewer of them, and those that do take place will probably be harder or more intimidating to get into.
There have been calls for local and state law enforcement officials to provide more security to members of Congress, to ban anyone from carrying a handgun in the vicinity of a member, and to enclose the House gallery in bullet-proof glass, and a few members already have announced that they’ll be carrying their own weapons when they return to their home districts.
It’s hard to imagine the easy informality that ought to exist between constituents and public officials continuing. It seems equally certain that people who might have considered dropping by a shopping center or community hall to see their elected representative will think twice, lest they get caught up in the next headline-making atrocity.
In the wake of the Arizona shootings, a lot of politicians and commentators of all stripes have been searching their souls about the character and intensity of their rhetoric. If there is anything positive to come of this, it may be in the awareness that the manner in which political discourse is conducted is important and has consequences. Robust political debate — even sarcasm and biting humor — is one thing; suggestions that someone ought to be “eliminated” are quite another.
So if our super-heated political discussions cool down a bit, that’s good. What would not be good is if the chill extends to the ordinary, day-to-day, vastly important contact between our representatives and the American people. If we diminish that dialogue or make it more difficult or put up barriers to it, then the shootings in Arizona will have claimed more than just human victims; something vital in our democracy will have been wounded, too.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.