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

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This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with "don't ask, don't tell" and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Today's passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.

Still, if it's the fundamental clash over justice that really is making the lids rattle, there is nothing that makes their blowing off inevitable. Even allowing for that vast gulf in understanding of a fundamental concept like liberty, Northerners and Southerners discovered in the Civil War how alike they still were. The Confederacy adopted a Constitution that was a virtual replica of the US Constitution. Southerners fought to defend a slave system, but privately nursed terrifying doubts about its rightness. Billy Yank and Johnny Reb fraternized across the battle lines. After General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, General Grant introduced Lee to his military secretary, Col. Ely S. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca sachem. "I am glad at last to meet a real American," Lee remarked. "General Lee," Parker said softly, "we are all Americans."

Remembering that likeness in 1861 could have pulled us back from the abyss that our great struggle over liberty was moving us toward.

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