An unspeakable tragedy unfolded Saturday when a lone gunman fired point-blank on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona, killed six people—among them a 9-year-old girl—and left over a dozen wounded. As our nation mourns, we must ask ourselves what people at foundations and nonprofits can do to prevent such senseless acts of violence in the future.
Hateful speech spawns hateful actions. In America today, people with significant influence such as public officials, talk-show hosts, and political-party leaders routinely castigate those who do not share their views.
The result of such biting words of ridicule and rage is a game that no one wins—least of all us, the citizenry. Even as there have been modest gestures of compromise in Washington since the midterm elections, the echo chambers of political leaders reverberate today louder than ever urging lawmakers not to compromise but instead to gut the positions of their opponents.
Our public leaders and leading media personalities set the tone for the public square. It is their duty to promote civil discourse and encourage peaceful participation in society. In the wake of this tragedy, we must demand nothing less.
People in the nonprofit world-as trusted members of communities everywhere-are in a powerful position to set the parameters for a decent society. We can use the power of our collective voice in many ways. We also can:
- Organize and finance educational programs in schools that teach tolerance and respect for others; then we can help institutionalize such programs into school curriculums at every level.
- Encourage faith-based and secular organizations to hold joint forums promoting civil dialogue; grant makers might reward this type of collaboration and encourage the most effective programs with additional resources.
- Reach out to colleagues in the mental-health field and join them in calling for public-policy changes that will promote early detection of mental illness and better access to health care.
- Speak out against those who promote hate and violence in the blogosphere and offer people what they are yearning for: rational discourse that solves, rather than promotes, the problems they face every day in their lives.
Some argue that words don’t kill people, actions do. But toxic words poison the climate in which disturbed people may feel empowered—indeed compelled—to act. But without instruments of death, like the semiautomatic weapon used just days ago, their actions would be checked—or at least the carnage would be less terrible.
We may never stop a lone disturbed actor, but there is plenty we can do to reduce the chance of another mass shooting. People in the nonprofit world will come out on either side of this debate, but without interfering with the First and Second Amendments, we ought to be thinking about what is best for society and what is likely to do the most good.
We can and will come through the unspeakable calamity that rocked not only Arizona but also our nation. We also have a precious chance, as a community, to shape something better out of this terrible time by sharing a broader vision that brings people together for the common good. Add your voice to the healing process: Call for peace and civility among all people.
Diana Aviv is chief executive of Independent Sector, a Washington coalition of foundations and charities.