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Roger Reinert: Thoughtful debate is needed in a civil society

Shock and disbelief. I imagine my thoughts represent what many of you were thinking after an inexcusable, senseless act of violence unfolded in Tucson earlier this month. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and seriously injured. Six people los...

Shock and disbelief. I imagine my thoughts represent what many of you were thinking after an inexcusable, senseless act of violence unfolded in Tucson earlier this month. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and seriously injured. Six people lost their lives in the gunfire, including a 9-year-old girl interested in politics and a 76-year-old husband protecting his wife.

Since this tragedy, countless people have voiced their opinion on how this could have happened. Questions have been raised about access to elected officials, the increase of hate speech, the divisiveness in America, bitter battles taking place in politics, and even our Second Amendment right to bear arms.

There is plenty of blame for how this tragedy occurred. But I'd like to pause for a moment to ask, what can we, as a community, do to learn from this tragedy and to ensure this never happens in the Northland?

Northlanders are known for having opinions on just about everything. We are passionate, engaged citizens who regularly exercise our right to free speech and our right to peacefully assemble. We proudly exercise our right to vote, and we respectfully voice our opinion with elected officials when needed. As your state senator, I stand by those rights. Last week's tragedy does not change this. Today, however, I call on Northlanders to maintain the high standards we have set in our community on civil, public discourse.

In many respects, I think the Twin Ports is a leader in terms of empowering people to create change through positive actions and words. It was more than a decade ago when community leaders, along with other concerned citizens in the Twin Ports, highlighted civil, public discourse as the number one issue facing our community. The concern, which in 2003 became known as "Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project," was quickly adopted by the Duluth City Council and School Board and by the St. Louis County Board. As a city councilor at the time, and later as council president, I encouraged these grass-roots efforts, overseen by the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, to encourage citizens to consider the tagline, "It's not what you say, but how you say it."

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Never once did the project censor speech -- instead it encouraged people to have thoughtful debate in a healthy environment. The process paved the way for our community to recognize our differences. And, more importantly, to move beyond them. Our work is not done, but I can see firsthand the changes that have occurred in our community because we worked together and demanded more than the status quo.

I hope what happened in Tucson never happens again. As a civilized society, we owe it to ourselves and our democracy to demand more. We will move beyond this unspeakable tragedy. But first, let's recognize that history can and will repeat itself if we allow it. Words matter. They have the power to change communities -- for better or worse.

Roger Reinert represents District 7 in the Minnesota Senate.

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