- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2011


The horrific attacks in Tucson, Ariz., constitute a wake-up call, but not one that requires more action. It requires less.

Sadly, we’ve been reminded that violence and extremism still produce a lethal brew. With good reason, some lawmakers will try again to stiffen gun-control laws to make it even harder for unstable individuals to buy a firearm. That’s a debate worth having.

But beyond that, Congress faces the serious danger of overreacting. Two bad ideas in particular are being discussed widely.

1. Members of Congress - and maybe their families - should have federal security guards.

2. Pundits, particularly from the political right, have to be muzzled for fear that their rhetoric will inflame more destruction.

The second issue needs to be discussed first.

The suspect in the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords was deeply disturbed, not politically astute. The notion that Jared Lee Loughner went after a Democratic member of Congress because he was incited by the hyperbolic language of Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin is absurd.

CNN actually ran a segment over the weekend that quoted Mrs. Giffords complaining recently about Mrs. Palin running an item on her website that placed cross hairs over targeted Democratic districts during the midterm elections - including Mrs. Giffords’.

Suggesting that a deranged gunman took Mrs. Palin’s illustration literally is a stretch at best and is irresponsible at worst. There is no evidence that Mr. Loughner even saw Mrs. Palin’s website. To blame the former Alaska governor for the tragedy - or even to suggest that she might have had anything to do with it - is sophistry and, clearly, partisan.

There is no evidence that Jared Loughner even knew there was a Tea Party, let alone that he acted because of its advocates’ views.

For decades, civility and politics have not been words that could be put in the same sentence. That’s not preferable, but it is what it is. A gruesome aberration, like the shooting in Arizona, should not be used as a trumped-up excuse for one side of the political spectrum to try to vilify the other.

Separately, some people in official Washington are seriously suggesting that members of Congress receive armed security protection at all times. How else to prevent a repeat of the Giffords incident, they suggest, which killed six people and severely injured the congresswoman?

The answer: many ways, and every one of them would be better than surrounding elected officials with armed guards. The specter of a police state - which is what such protection would look like - is the very last thing Washington decision-makers should want, especially at a time of heightened distrust of government of the kind we have now.

Lawmakers should not be guarded routinely by the government - that is, embraced by it - because that is the opposite of the real situation. Members of Congress stand for re-election at regular intervals and are tossed out with similar regularity. Voters have the upper hand, not the government of which lawmakers - temporarily - become part.

Nothing should be done to alter that impression of transience, especially at a time when the polls show that voters are eager for a more responsive government, not one that is less so.

The cost of providing security for 535 members of Congress would be prohibitive - in addition to being an expense that is unnecessary. Republicans properly are trying to rein in Congress‘ budget as one of their first acts as a majority in the House of Representatives. They should not make their goal of reducing Congress‘ price tag impossible to reach by adding an ill-conceived security cost.

This is not to say that members of Congress shouldn’t be extra-cautious. They should. Local law enforcement officials around the country have prudently asked to keep a better lookout for lawmakers when they come home to talk to constituents.

That’s fine, as are all sorts of other common-sense precautions, such as carefully choosing venues for town-hall meetings that include easily accessible escape routes.

But our form of government thrives because it allows voters to have real contact with their elected officials. Closing that down or even limiting it sends the wrong signal in the short run and, over time, could well undermine the democracy we all hold so dear.

We should not allow the act of a crazy person to alter the two-century course of the greatest and most successful experiment in the history of government. That would be an overreaction all of us would regret.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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