Just as it sometimes takes a scandal to engage Americans in a national conversation about sex, race or some other touchy topic, it sadly has taken a deranged gunman to launch us into a national argument about civility.
Much of the chatter has centered on how much the inflammatory rhetoric in our national media and politics helped cause the Saturday shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and wounded 14, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 40, who was in critical condition after being shot in the head.
Civility came up, partly because Sarah Palin's Facebook page famously featured a U.S. map with crosshairs superimposed on the districts of 20 House Democrats, including Giffords'. After the shooting, the graphic was removed and Palin offered condolences.
Some of her fellow conservatives, uncomfortably put on the defensive, lashed out at the new calls for civility in a rather uncivil fashion. "What this is all about is shutting down any and all political opposition," said an infuriated Rush Limbaugh. "Criminalizing policy differences, at least when they differ from the Democrat agenda."
Now, now. No one of any note has called for the criminalizing of opinion, and I seriously doubt that anyone will. Criminalizing opinions in our culture only makes heroic martyrs out of those who hold them. Free speech lives. But so does free choice. Just as everyone has the right to voice their opinion, others have the right to criticize the speaker.
That was the message of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who said Arizona has become a "mecca for prejudice and bigotry," according to the Arizona Republic, partly because of the "vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business."
Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck also detected conspiracies against conservative talkers. "This is something they have been wanting for a while," Beck said on his Monday radio broadcast. "The script has already been written."
In an e-mail to Palin, Beck suggested she "look into protection for your family," he said. "An attempt on you could bring the Republic down. There are nut jobs on all sides."
Yes, there are. But, as the fog of horror, sadness and wild speculation surrounding this tragedy is slowly burned away by the warm light of facts, we need to be honest about where we go from here.
First, let's call off the hounds in the hunt for the political leanings of the man charged in the shootings, Jared Lee Loughner. As much as pundits on the left and right have scratched for any hint of an affiliation with their opposites, the 22-year-old is registered as an independent voter in Pima County, the Washington Post reports. After voting in 2006 and 2008, the record shows he didn't vote at all in November.
From the looks of things, the "lone wolf" label that law enforcers attach to terrorists who work alone should not be applied to Loughner. It only exaggerates his unearned bravado. A more appropriate description would be something like "sick puppy."
The most serious questions raised by his tragic saga have to do with how mental health warnings can work better, how gun purchases by the insane can be prevented and, most urgently, why extended gun clips like his are still legal.
Unfortunately, as some people's paranoid reactions illustrate, trying to sort out the Tucson shooter's motives from a distance can make some otherwise sane people sound mentally ill, too.
As the fog of high emotions clears, the lasting iconic symbols of this tragedy will be innocents like 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. She had hoped to meet her congresswoman after being elected to her elementary school's student council. Instead she was gunned down and died before reaching a hospital.
Born on another ill-fated day, Sept. 11, 2001, "she came in on a tragedy and she went out on a tragedy," her father, John Green, told reporters. "Those nine years in between were very special."
Her death is special, too. Like that of the four black girls who died in a racist church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, maybe her death can be the sort of stunning event that brings Americans together, looking for new ways for us to get along together. That's what civility is about, if we're not too afraid of it.
Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at email@example.com.