At the risk of entering a fray that almost instantaneously became polarized along the usual ideological lines, we suggest looking at the recent mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in a somewhat different light.
The issue is not incivility. The issue is tolerance of incivility.
Don't waste your time reading the few available writings of the mentally deranged killer, Jared Loughner. Instead, read the police reports released Thursday, describing Loughner's encounters with officers and Pima Community College officials.
The immediate conclusion: Before he became a killer, Loughner already was a well-established jerk.
He insisted his "freedom of speech" meant that he could disrupt school or make inappropriate comments whenever he wanted because, after all, he'd paid for the class. Sound familiar?
He contended that, because of his right to "freedom of thought," he could write anything he wanted on a test and should receive an "A" for it. Ever hear something like that?
He frequently seized upon other students' comments to make bizarre, even vulgar, responses, and retreated into sullen pout when questioned for it. Ring any bells?
Loughner undoubtedly is unbalanced, so his behavior went far beyond mere class disruptions. Yet it was only after he walked up to a political reception and opened fire, killing six people and wounding a dozen others, that virtually everyone who knew him suddenly felt compelled to say: We're not surprised.
Set aside all the clear, at least in hindsight, warnings in Loughner's actions before the shooting. The question we should ask is this: Why do we tolerate such behavior?
Just look around: How often do we hear of, or even witness, someone berating a fast-food clerk or a grocery store cashier because an order isn't perfect? How often do we grit our teeth and avert our eyes at people disrupting movies or ruining dining experiences?
For that matter, why do we meekly accept anonymous people who make horrifically imbecilic comments on Internet message boards or comment sites, motorists who make rude gestures, or people in public who spew vulgar language that should earn them a trip to a mouth-washing station?
In short, why do we put up with jerks?
Obviously, Loughner is a jerk with mangled mental wiring that aimed his behavior to the next, deadly level. But he was stopped only after it got to the point of death and mayhem; for the most part, unfortunately, he was simply tolerated while he was just being a jerk.
In the wake of this mass murder, the calls nationwide have been for greater civility. Yet that means more than just minding our own behaviors; it also means refusing to tolerate misbehavior that is damaging to the good order of a civil society.
It means that we shouldn't keep putting up with jerks. Evil prevails when good people do nothing. Who knows: With a little earlier intervention, we could stop the next Jared Loughner before he acts out.
At the very least, it just might elevate civilized discourse.
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