A Space for Democracy

The losses suffered Saturday at a Tucson, Arizona, Safeway Supermarket are numerous and nefarious. As our ravenous news cycle has already reported in devastating detail, suspected gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, opened fire on a small crowd gathered for a meet and greet, wounding 14 people and killing six -- including federal Judge John M. Roll. As of this writing, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- who was shot at point-blank range in the head and appears to be the primary target of the attack -- remains in stable but critical condition.

We are a nation in mourning -- grieving innocent lives, civility, and lapsed gun-control legislation. This tragic shooting is yet another wake-up call about the importance of mental-health services and community responsiveness; why weren't concerns about Loughner's stability taken seriously? It's hard not to hear eerie echoes of reports about the noticeably unhinged young men involved in the 2007 Virginia Tech and 1999 Columbine shootings.

But one critical loss on Saturday has largely been overlooked. What becomes of our public spaces when civilians don't feel safe? In our increasingly segregated, suburbanized, and social-networked world, the democratic commons -- an idea as old as the agora in ancient Greece -- has already become endangered. Now, it's become downright dangerous.

As sociologist Robert Putnam argued in his 2001 Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Americans have becoming increasingly disconnected from one another. Whereas the fabric of everyday life used to be stitched together with community meetings, neighborhood picnics, and bowling teams -- the origin of Putnam's title -- today we are more likely to spend our days in cut-off cubicles and our nights in front of a variety of glowing screens. While online organizations like Moveon.org and Living Liberally make noble efforts to gather people in person to talk politics, community interaction continues to decline.

In a political context, much of our most rancorous debate is conducted in 140 character snippets on Twitter or in empty sound bites on one of the country's many partisan news shows. The balkanization of media has pushed us into ever narrowing echo chambers of thought and pseudo debate -- progressives read The Nation and watch Rachel Maddow; conservatives read National Review and watch Bill O'Reilly. Our viewpoints are rarely challenged in a thoughtful, respectful way, and our paths rarely cross, except for the obligatory Thanksgiving dinner at which God, sex, and politics are often off-limits.

Rep. Giffords, however, was trying to do something different, something so antiquated as to be radical. She was trying to meet, face-to-face, with the citizens she was newly elected to represent. Known for her commitment to ideas, not party dogma, she was going to sit outside of a supermarket and chat with her constituents about their concerns. As the massive turnout at Jon Stewart's pre-election Rally to Restore Sanity indicated, people are hungry for this kind of interaction. Dorothy Morris, a staunch Republican, told a neighbor she was interested to hear what Giffords had to say; Morris was one of the six who died in Saturday's shooting.

Jared Lee Loughner didn't just attack a young and promising political leader and the citizens who sought to engage her; he attacked one of the most fundamental and increasingly rare facets of a robust democracy. He injected fear into the hearts and minds of average Americans, who will now think twice about attending a political rally or public meeting. Watching the parents of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green talk about their daughter -- a little girl who will never again dance, hit a fast ball, or run for student government -- is enough to make any parent wonder if encouraging the dreams of the next generation of civic leaders is safe.

Vibrant and constructive spaces for public and political dialogue have been shrinking in the last couple of years. After the rise in political engagement sparked by the 2008 presidential campaign -- in which students and senior citizens alike were knocking on doors and discussing politics in coffee shops -- our collective engagement has become rare and rude. Town hall meetings from Boston to San Diego were hijacked last year by rancorous and hyperbolic debates over "Obamacare" that didn't make anyone smarter or healthier. Tea Party rallies have become notorious for attracting the angry and the armed -- not exactly a safe environment in which to debate the state of our democracy.

To worship and learn as a community, to engage in dialogue with an elected official face-to-face -- these are the most sacred of democratic acts. If people don't feel safe to do these things together, out in the open, America loses part of what makes it most unique and powerful. We are great because we are diverse and capable of co-existing, for the most part, in passionate disagreement in public space.

For now, we must mourn. So much has been lost. But once we are done grieving, we must fight for the safety of democratic dialogue and the prioritization of public space. Reclaiming the democratic commons would be an apt tribute to the innocent victims who, at the very moment of their untimely deaths, were demonstrating exactly what it means to be a brave and engaged citizen.