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In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Tucson, the national discussion has quickly turned to one of civility. Did the words of conservative activists encourage this troubled boy to commit acts of murder? Or, is such an inference misguided and even insulting? Many are calling on the president to turn the tragedy into an opportunity to talk about the importance of a civil tone in our vitriolic politics.

This seems like the wrong approach to me.

The President, and others in a position to be heard, ought to resist calls to “use” this moment as an opportunity to do anything but lift up the stories of those who lost, or nearly lost, their lives last Saturday.

Consider Judge John Roll, a chief federal judge appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1991 that died in the shooting spree. Roll is described by his colleagues as having been humble, fair, and kind, and was working to bring more resources to his state to help with a severe case back-log in the months before his death.

9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the only girl on her Little League baseball team and a newly elected member of her student council, also died.

Daniel Hernandez, a 20 year-old intern on his 5th day on the job, operated on instinct to stop Congresswoman Giffords’ bleeding with his bare hands, and provided comfort to her until emergency responders arrived.

And there’s Congresswoman Giffords, currently fighting for her life, who continued to host open forums at easily accessible locations like supermarkets, even after she had received death threats and had her office window shattered by vandals.

The stories of these individuals is what ought to dominate our news cycle in coming days/weeks, not a process-oriented discussion about how to have a discussion.

By focusing on these stories, the President can summon much more than civility – he can summon inspiration. In the lives affected by the Tucson shooting, we find evidence of the American spirit we so badly need right now: Young people like Christina committed to education and leadership; Older professionals like Judge Roll still going above-and-beyond the call of duty, instead of having one foot out the door; Citizens showing up on a weekend to listen, to chastise, and to meet one another.

People do not become civil because they’re told its the right thing to do. They do so because they are inspired to come together around a common purpose, and a common vision. Civility, at root, is simply a necessary means for achieving our desired end as a people – to form a more perfect union. It is the grease necessary to turn the wheels. It is not the end in itself.

Instead of a singular focus on ‘civility’, let us figure out how to take from these hallowed dead and wounded an increased measure of devotion to being stronger students, nicer neighbors, harder workers, and better citizens.

That nine year-old, Christina Taylor Green, was born on September 11, 2001. Her short decade on Earth was one marked by terrorism, war, political division, and economic uncertainty. In this new year – this new decade – let us be here dedicated to her unfinished work and, together, build a nation that can thrive in the 21st century.

If we build it, civility will come.

Throughout the last couple days, I’ve been checking lots of different news sites to monitor how things are going in Kasubi. When I went to bed on Tuesday night, I feared what I would read in the next day’s paper. I suppose the news from Kampala is both bad: some unrest around the tombs, with 3 people killed by security personnel; and good: no reports of widespread violence or rioting.  I have noticed, mostly on the Daily Monitor’s Facebook fan page, and in comments in newspaper articles, a theme of empathy and shared loss expressed by people not just of the Buganda tribe, but by Acholis and other groups from around the country.  This brings me a bit of hope that perhaps trust is growing between ethnic groups in Uganda.

Along with reading the articles, I’ve been trolling the photos and videos, hoping to not see any familiar faces. I continue to hope that many of my neighbors had the chance to avoid the chaos around the tombs. Jon and I plan to call friends from the area tomorrow to check in with them.

People in Uganda (and those watching from elsewhere) continue to wonder about who (if anyone) was behind the fire. A friend shared this Al Jazeera clip with me, and it discusses the steps that various parties are taking to start investigations.  It also highlights a lot of the issues going on in Uganda at the moment, and provides some good context.

Uganda has truly lost an important piece of its cultural heritage.  As best as I can tell, it doesn’t look like it’s lost its (hard-fought and precariously maintained) social cohesion.  I hope that that can continue, and that rebuilding the Tombs provides an opportunity to grow empathy and trust between Ugandan communities.

On the surface, daily life in Uganda is quite civil. I saw more theft and scams in South Africa, and more frowning faces in Chicago. In fact, one time when I dropped my wallet in Gulu someone picked it up, took it to a radio station, and paid to have my name announced so that I would come and claim it.

But, underneath this is a legacy of violence that runs very deep. Almost everyone in Uganda has been touched by war and violence, whether it was Idi Amin’s reign of terror, Yoweri Museveni’s bush war in the Luweero Triangle, or atrocities committed by the LRA or one of the other two dozen or so rebel groups that have surfaced over the last 20 years.

I was reminded of this fact yesterday while riding the boda boda of Ssemakula, my favorite boda driver who is also the chairman of the boda stage in Munaku where we live.

(So, “boda stages” are gatherings of boda bodas—motorcycle taxis—that park in various places waiting for customers. Each stage has a “chairman”, someone elected by the boda drivers that park at that stage who sort of manages things).

Ssemakula’s mom is from Buganda and his dad was from Acholi. So, Ssemakula speaks both Luganda and Acholi…this gives me someone to practice Acholi with on a daily basis.

While riding yesterday, Ssemakula told me about the time his dad was killed by the UPDF (current Ugandan military) in a village called Awer in Gulu District. The father had worked in government during the regime of Milton Obote, and the UPDF soldiers accused him of “supporting rebels”.  So, they killed him.

As we rode through town past bodas, shopkeepers, and lots of other average folks going about their day, I kept wondering who else had a story like Ssemakula’s. Quite a few, I imagine.


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