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Let's end the hate-talk era

NEW YORK - So now both left and right are blaming each other following the shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six and wounded at least 13 others.

From the left, the charges are that Republican Sarah Palin's placement of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on a political hit list was taken literally by the gunman who critically wounded the Democratic legislator. Keith Olbermann, the television talk-show host, couldn't resist exploiting the rampage by demanding that Republicans repudiate Palin's violent talk or itself be condemned.

From the right comes anger at the idea that Republicans and tea-party types are the only ones who use strong rhetoric.

Yes, Palin did create a list of candidates and place them in her virtual cross hairs. But Democrats, too, constructed lists. The Daily Kos, which is criticizing Palin, itself placed Giffords on a roster of "bad apples" back in 2008. Last summer a Democratic politician in New Hampshire posted an online comment about the death of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens in a plane crash and added: "just wish Sarah and Levy were on board," the latter referring to Levi Johnston, the father of Palin's grandchild.

The evidence doesn't suggest that any of the victims of the Jan. 8 shopping center rampage, including U.S. District Judge John Roll and a 9-year-old child, who were both slain, were shot for their politics, right- or left-wing. The evidence suggests that Jared Loughner, the suspect, is insane. Giffords, a Blue Dog, pro-gun, pro-Obamacare Democrat, has found critics on both sides.

Still, if the evil moment is going to be exploited, let it be exploited in a useful way, as an impetus to change the tone of discourse, to self-censor our own modern habit of violent talk.

Olbermann, around the same time he was creepily assigning blame, also offered up something good. It was that: "Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our democracy, and I apologize for and repudiate any act or anything in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence."

Everybody else (right, center, and left) should be saying the same thing. At the same time, we can drop the character assassination that's become modern entertainment.

That's true for Rachel Maddow, CBS, Fox, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, CNN, Jon Stewart, and the birthers. It's true for all the snarky blog posters and tweeters who gleefully suspended their inhibitions and keyed in material about crushing wingnuts, impaling feminazis, and so on. It's also true for all the violent talkers in Arizona, where the Pima County sheriff commented that the state was out of control.

As for Congress, instead of locking and loading, lawmakers should be ready to "lock arms" and unite, just as House Speaker John Boehner suggested over the weekend.

If this sounds too teacher-preacher-ish, we may just want to live with that. Here's why: there's not much good that comes from violent rhetoric, or even ad hominem cracks. Even if the rhetoric remains metaphorical, as it almost always does, character assassination and violent talk does damage. The policy issues before the country are too subtle for shooting, or even shouting.

Exhibit A: the matter of President Barack Obama's birth certificate. If you're passing a law that says a president must prove he was born in the United States, as Arizona lawmakers contemplated doing, you are giving up some of the time and political capital you need to work on border patrol and immigration. It was the latter that preoccupied Judge Roll, who asked for federal resources to handle the surge in felony cases involving drugs and crime along the border.

The health-care law, a topic important to Giffords, is Exhibit B. Many people still object to the "end of life planning" component in new Medicare documents. But it's hard to take up "death panels" when you're worried about death threats.

Palin's critics are saying the Arizona shooting has damaged her chance to become president. That's only true if she subsequently demonstrates that tough talk is all there is to her. If she is a serious policymaker, it's time she dig into the details of fixing laws.

The same holds for politicians of both parties. Even without the shock of a tragedy, this is an easier moment than some to commence an era of civility. It's not an election year. Democrats and Republicans share power in Congress. Bipartisan work can succeed if both parties get involved. It can reduce some of the political frustration that fuels the rage that in turn fuels the talk. And Gabrielle Giffords would like that.

AMITY SHLAES, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist.