Thursday, January 20, 2011

Democracy's Mockingbird

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, said Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s famed novel, because all it does is make music for us to enjoy.

We very much want to believe that democracy is as innocent and sonorous as the mockingbird. We know that it is not. Democracy has been the willing instrument of vicious majority preference and mass self-delusion. Early on it affirmed and protected, though it did not create, slavery. The coming of the Civil War has sometimes been attributed to an "excess of democracy." Democracy certainly proved ill-equipped to prevent its own dissolution, and our whole political structure had to be reassembled by force of arms. In more recent times, democracy has casually ratified, through numerous acts of legislatures and voters at referenda, an ongoing judicial death sentence on the unwanted unborn. Pope John Paul II often warned of the dangers of democracy unhinged from truth. Democracy is by far the best form of government known to the human race, but the competition is not strong.

Now, though, after the brutal shooting in Tucson, we are offered the smiling countenance of Gabrielle Giffords. She softens democracy, makes us forget its coarser realities. Her biography suggests an upbeat, energetic public servant, ready to listen--but also grounded, anchored, a taker of no bull. A beloved wife and friend, she seems to make democracy sing again.

Giffords's survival and ongoing recovery may or may not be a miracle. But it is certainly a great grace from God to the whole nation. Just by surviving, Giffords has set bounds to the emotional and cultural undertow generated by the shooting. One can scarcely imagine the result had she died. America could hardly have borne the killing of democracy's mockingbird.

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