THERE'S only one explanation for what happened last Saturday in Tucson:
The guy had to be nuts to open fire and shoot a congresswoman in the head and kill a 9-year-old girl.
I'm not prepared to figuratively place his semiautomatic weapon in the hands of a talk-radio host or cable TV presenter. But that doesn't mean the climate in which this occurred is irrelevant. A national conversation about the context of this crime shouldn't require a causal connection between hate speech and violent acts.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik tried to start such a discussion when he said, "When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous."
He was quickly derided as a "liberal" and a "Democrat."
Anyone who doubts that we have a problem with incivility in this country needs to read the posts that accompany news stories about this tragedy. The dead girl was Christina Green. Her mother gave an interview to MSNBC in which she implored "stop the violence, stop the hatred."
Beneath a story on the interview at Politico.com, and attached to countless other reports on the shooting, was this sort of back and forth:
"Liberals need to stop the hatred? Wrong, my friend! We all need to stop the hatred. Fox News is a huge purveyor of hatred!"
"MSNBC is by far the most hateful channel I have ever come across. Management should be proud. I am so done with MSNBC."
"Please show me a single incidence when Move On used a rifle sight in a graphic or advocated a second amendment solution."
"Conservatives have learned nothing. They continue to thrive on hate. No matter who this person was, the country has awakened to the hideous Palin [crowd] and the cancer they are to our society."
"MSNBC has the most hate rhetoric I have ever seen. They are terrorist against the American people. This shooter says he is a Communist, Van Jones admits he's a Communist, Obama buddy and MSNBC is Obama's mouth piece."
"It's disappointing that Republican leaders condemn the violence but are afraid to publicly condemn and risk offending those profiting from the inflammatory rhetoric which contributed to this, and many other recent tragedies."
The comments were sickening but not surprising, each end of the political spectrum seeking to gain advantage from the tragedy.
Unfortunately, it's what happens when reasonable people cede the political dialogue to the fringes. And it's been happening for years with escalating danger.
We shouldn't be surprised when GOP Rep. Joe Wilson has the temerity to shout "You lie!" as the president is addressing a joint session of Congress. Or Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson would intone, "Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick" in the middle of a debate on health care.
They've been prepped well by talk radio and cable TV, which establish Washington's increasingly rabid tone and encourage politicians to treat colleagues like enemies on a split screen.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly characterized this climate as one in which "bloggers and partisan pundits feed a 24-hour news cycle that values conflict over consensus and rewards people at the extremes who scream the loudest."
Our only hope is that the finger-pointing after a tragedy like this will be the impetus to awaken the sleeping giant - the majority of Americans who are not represented by the fringes but all too often let their day-to-day responsibilities stand in the way of getting involved. If only they will participate, maybe in a group like the newly formed No Labels, then the adults would be back in charge of the conversation.
Even as No Labels was getting off the ground last month, it was viciously criticized by Rush Limbaugh on the right and Ed Schultz on the left. Why? Maybe they felt threatened. Maybe it had something to do with the group's declaration, which says in part:
"We believe hyper-partisanship is destroying our politics and paralyzing our ability to govern."
Unfortunately, the status quo is rewarded with ratings, which are driven by passion, not universal appeal or general acceptance.
Did the political climate kill six people on Saturday? No.
But should the fallout from the catastrophe start a reasonable conversation about how we've ceded the dialogue of the day to the fringes? It should. The current political climate is unhealthy, counterproductive and eerily dangerous.
Gabrielle Giffords apparently had a better sense of that than most. The night before the rampage, she reportedly sent an e-mail to her friend Trey Grayson, Kentucky's outgoing GOP secretary of state and newly announced director of Harvard's Institute of Politics, requesting that they work together to "figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down" and "promote centrism and moderation."
The only way to accomplish her goal is convince talk-radio listeners and cable-TV viewers that the political entertainment they listen to and watch is actually injurious to the country - and hope they turn it off.
Contact Michael Smerconish via the Web at www.smerconish.com. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer.