FLINT - Yes, there is room in the aftermath of the Arizona massacre for a national discussion on civility.
Some will tell you there isn't. Everything is fine. Don't be such a baby. Grow a pair.
Even before the smoke cleared last week, on-line shouters were seething about how Jared Loughner's murderous rampage in Tuscon had nothing to do with the epidemic of brute incivility and political rancor that has swept America the past few years.
And maybe it didn't. To me Loughner seems like more of a nut than a political zealot. But he may also turn out to be a nut who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in part because over-the-top rhetoric gave him permission to. We just don't know yet. That's the thing here. The left doesn't know. The right doesn't know. Loughner himself may not even know.
But if nothing else, the reaction to those who suggested - prematurely, I might add - that there was or might be a link proved to me that it's high time we talked about how we talk to one another in this country.
Not that everyone agrees.
After the shooting, I wrote that whether or not things like Sarah Palin's infamous "target" list - which had a sniper crosshair over Gifford's district - had anything to do with the shooting, "the fact remains that extreme rhetoric is heard by those on the margins as well as those of us who can see it for the nonsense it is. They're just more likely to act on it."
Which elicited this from a reader: "You liberal b******* are dancing in the blood of the dead!"
While I appreciate my point being proven so eloquently, that comment is not at all unique. I see worse on my blog every day. It no longer bothers me.
But that doesn't mean they don't matter. The way I see it, incivility breeds incivility. One snarl begets another. And thus a virus grows.
Agree or not, it's damaging the country. There is the potential for violence, of course. President Clinton last year drew a parallel between the harsh anti-government rhetoric in 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing.
"There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do," Clinton said, adding that Timothy McVeigh and his conspirators "were profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant anti-government line."
But there's also the effect on both our political process and national psyche, which is what I think Sen. John Kerry was getting at when he said this after the shooting: "In the weeks and months ahead, the real issue we need to confront isn't just what role divisive political rhetoric may have played on Saturday - but (what) overly simplistic dialogue does to our democracy every day."
Being a realist, I won't hold my breath waiting for our leaders to confront that issue, but maybe you and I can slowly, quietly.
I figure it's a bit by bit process. Incivility breeds incivility, it's true. But civility also breeds civility. One checked tongue begets another.
And thus a virus dies.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.