Rhetoric doesn’t kill. But it can do harm.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY KAREN HUGHES Karen Hughes, a global vice chair at Bur­son-Marsteller, served as coun­selor to Pres­i­dent Ge­orgeW. Bush from 2001 to 2002 and as un­der­sec­re­tary of state for pub­lic diplo­macy and pub­lic af­fairs from 2005 to 2007.

WhenI trav­eled the world rep­re­sent­ing the United States dur­ing the Ge­orgeW. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, I was of­ten con­fronted by peo­ple who wanted to blame the ter­ror­ist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy.

U.S. sup­port for Is­rael, along with the suf­fer­ing of the Pales­tinian peo­ple, they told me, had spawned the re­sent­ment and anger that re­sulted in the attacks on our coun­try.

No, I al­ways an­swered, you can­not blame the murder of in­no­cent peo­ple on any griev­ance, no mat­ter how le­git­i­mate. The only or­ga­ni­za­tion and peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for Sept. 11 are al-Qaeda and the 19 hi­jack­ers who car­ried out its mur­der­ous mis­sion.

I’ve been re­minded of that ar­gu­ment as I’ve lis­tened to at­tempts to blame the al­leged mur­der­ous acts of a twisted young man in Tuc­son on the tenor of Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal de­bate. No, you can­not blame this vi­o­lence on the shrill voices of politi­cians and pund its— from the right or the left.

And yet, as Pres­i­dent Obama deftly re­minded us in his speech onWed­nes­day night, times of tragedy can be­come times of na­tional ex­am­i­na­tion. And Amer­ica needs some soul-search­ing.

Un­like the spirit of unity that emerged in the af­ter­math of Sept. 11, the re­ac­tion to the tragedy in Tuc­son seems to have only deep­ened the chasm in our sharply di­vided coun­try. We haven’t come to­gether to sup­port the vic­tims and con­demn this as­sault on a bedrock of our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem: the right of cit­i­zens to as­sem­ble and ques­tion their pub­lic of­fi­cials. In­stead, our na­tional con­ver­sa­tion has de­volved into ac­cu­sa­tions about whom, other than the mur­derer him­self, might be re­spon­si­ble.

I am deeply concerned about the anger and in­tol­er­ance in our pol­i­tics and the lack of re­spect for dif­fer­ent points of view. This is tak­ing place not only be­tween the left and the right, and Repub­li­cans and Democrats, but among mem­bers ofmy own party.

I saw this di­vi­sive­ness re­cently in my state of Texas when Rep. Joe Straus ran for re­elec­tion as state House speaker. Straus, whom I work with as an ad­viser, is a life­long Repub­li­can who served in the ad­min­is­tra­tions of Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush. Yet this elec­tion sea­son, he suf­fered vi­cious attacks from a hand­ful of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists who ques­tioned his con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials. In a par­tic­u­larly of­fen­sive ref­er­ence to his Jewish faith, some crit­ics sug­gested that he

This in­ci­dent seems to have only deep­ened the chasm in our sharply di­vided coun­try.

did not have “Chris­tian val­ues.” The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of his fel­low Repub­li­cans in the House sup­ported him, but were ha­rassed and threat­ened with po­lit­i­cal ret­ri­bu­tion. Since when did re­venge be­come a Chris­tian value?

Straus did not re­spond to his mis­guided crit­ics with sim­i­lar vit­riol but called for greater ci­vil­ity in pol­i­tics. “Di­vi­sion, threats of ret­ri­bu­tion, attacks on peo­ple’s re­li­gious be­liefs and dis­tor­tions of peo­ple’s records haveno place in this House,” he said, to a stand­ing ova­tion from his col­leagues, af­ter be­ing re­elected 132 to 15.

I am a vo­cal Repub­li­can who feels strongly about my con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples. But that doesn’t mean I can’t lis­ten to an­other point of view or give cred­itwhenit is due, evento a po­lit­i­cal leader with whom I largely dis­agree.

Obama’s speech in Tuc­son was a dif­fi­cult one, given the ran­cor in the coun­try. His words tran­scended the ug­li­ness of the moment and sought to heal. And while words can­not be blamed for vi­o­lent acts, words are pow­er­ful things. Scrip­ture coun­sels that we will be held ac­count­able for ev­ery care­less one. Our words can lift up or tear down, bring us to­gether or rip us apart. Our po­lit­i­cal de­bates can and should be spir­ited. But our words should seek to con­vince, not to blud­geon.

Obama did what Amer­i­can pres­i­dents should do in times of na­tional trauma: He called us to our bet­ter selves. Nowit’s up to the rest of us.

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