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Giffords shooting: What the Civil War can teach us about political restraint

The past year in US politics has been full of more alienation and polarization than at any time since 1861, all of it now capped off in the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. As in 1861, today's divide has opened up over a single deep question. But this fundamental collision of values doesn't mean violence is inevitable.

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One hundred and fifty years ago, American passions over politics blew off the lids we usually keep in place on our political debates and turned a war of words into a war of arms. By its end, the US Civil War had taken the lives of 620,000 Americans – the population equivalent of 6 million today. And despite the emancipation of more than 3 million slaves, the war ended up replacing slavery with a century's worth of racist Jim Crow laws.

The reasons for war were many and complicated, but the fundamental issue was how to define liberty. "We all declare for liberty," Abraham Lincoln said in 1864, but after that, all similarity evaporated. "With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor," Lincoln said.

Four years of war finally settled that question.

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I have the uneasy sensation, however, that the lids are rattling again. The past year in US politics has been full of more alienation and polarization than at any time since 1861, all of it now capped off hellishly in the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona. And just as in 1861, that divide has opened up over a single deep question. Then, the question was "What makes for liberty?" In 2011, it is "What makes for justice?"

A fundamental collision of values

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