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John F. Kennedy. Martin Luther King Jr. Bobby Kennedy. John Lennon. George Moscone. Harvey Milk. We’ve been there so often, we should be used to it by now. But it still hurts deeply every time.

And here we are again. Fortunately, it looks like Gabrielle Giffords will survive. But her attempted assassination, and the murder of six of her constituents, forces us, once again, to face the dark underbelly of America and ask some serious questions.

Yes, one disturbed young man pulled the trigger. He and he alone deserves the blame. But we can’t ignore three factors that may have contributed to his senseless act: the fact that he never got the mental-health attention he so desperately needed; the fact that such a mentally unstable individual was so easily able to buy a lethal weapon; and the fact that he attempted his political assassination in the most toxic political atmosphere in America – against a woman who had herself been the target of ugly political attacks.

As President Obama noted in his remarks in Tucson, we Americans learn from each such tragedy and rebound determined to make society and ourselves better. In this case, that means looking for ways to improve accessibility of care for the mentally ill, to tighten our gun laws and, especially, to debate political issues “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Remembering 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, Obama issued a strong challenge to each of us: “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

His was a personal, powerful, uplifting message the nation wanted and needed to hear. What a contrast to the sickening, whining, inflammatory message released the same day by Alaska’s dropout governor.

She’s bringing leftists to their knees with angst, but is she the best hope for the future of the GOP? Get Sarah Palin’s best-seller, “Going Rogue: An American Life”

Whatever else you say about Sarah Palin, she has the worst sense of timing in politics today. Just when the nation was yearning for healing, the same morning members of Congress gathered in a bipartisan prayer service, just hours before the president traveled to Tucson to deliver a message of unity – Palin chose that moment to toss more gasoline on the flames of hatred and division she had already ignited.

It would have been so easy, and appropriate, for Palin to say what I and so many other public figures have said in the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson. Something like: “After what happened in Tucson, it’s important that all of us do a little soul-searching about our choice of words. I certainly never meant any harm when I posted that map with ‘bull’s-eyes’ on it” (her word). “But today, looking back, I realize it was inappropriate – and I wouldn’t do it again.”

So easy, so appropriate – and words that would have been so welcomed by all Americans. But instead, Palin put out a sickening, self-serving video in which she made no apology whatsoever, painted herself as a victim and attacked those Americans, starting with Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who first raised the issue of toxic political rhetoric, accusing them of rushing to “manufacture a blood libel.”

As Palin should know, that phrase “blood libel” is an especially explosive one and connotes the worst of anti-Semitism: the medieval accusation that Jews killed Christian children in order to use their blood for making matzos for Passover. That charge has no place in American politics. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, her insensitivity in using it is mind-boggling.

As is her attack on those “journalists and pundits” who question the poisonous rhetoric we’ve heard from both sides, but especially from the Right. When a member of Congress is shot down while meeting constituents, it’s not only acceptable to question the propriety of Sharron Angle’s calling for “Second Amendment remedies,” or Michele Bachmann’s urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous,” or a former vice-presidential candidate’s publishing a map with crosshairs; it would be irresponsible not to.

In Tucson, President Obama expressed the hope that some good will come out of this tragedy. If we’re lucky, one good thing will be the end of Sarah Palin’s already-too-long political career. She belongs to Fox News, not to the rest of America.

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