But that's a lesson Americans find it harder than ever to grasp. What Raspberry called "the open warfare that now passes as political debate" has grown ubiquitous. Every development must be given a politicized, partisan spin, preferably with an assumption of the other side's bad faith. News cannot break without being instantly deployed as a weapon in the culture war. Forest fires break out, and partisans start sniping over climate change. An oil spill befouls the Gulf Coast, and the talking heads swiftly hurl recriminations about government regulation.
Nothing and no one is immune from exploitation. On Monday evening came word of the death of astronaut/physicist Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Within an hour, Daily Kos writer Dante Atkins, a Los Angeles Democratic Party Central Committee member, had taken to twitter to attack US House Speaker John Boehner and the National Organization for Marriage. "Just so everyone knows," Atkins wrote, they "don't think Sally Ride deserved to marry the person she loved." Did she deserve to have news of her passing instantly recycled into political ammunition?
The most recent obvious illustration of the rush to politicize tragedy was, of course, the political grandstanding that followed the carnage in Aurora, Colo. Particularly egregious was ABC newsman Brian Ross's slanderous speculation on "Good Morning America" -- on the basis of nothing more than a common name on a website -- that the theater massacre might be the work of a Colorado Tea Party member. Ross's recklessness was inexcusable (and ABC later apologized). But I found it nearly as dismaying that when I heard from five conservative friends about the atrocity in Aurora, the very first words each spoke to me were not an expression of horror or grief, but some version of: "Did you hear what Brian Ross said? The mainstream media is despicable!"
Politics is important. Without the peaceful clash of political ideas in the public realm, our democratic liberties couldn't be sustained. Like anyone who makes a living commenting on public affairs, I understand that our political beliefs and our moral self-image are entwined, often quite emotionally.
But there are limits, or should be. "Sometimes There's Nothing Wrong with Politicizing a Tragedy," Time magazine's Michael Grunwald wrote the other day. But when human sorrow becomes just another reason to impugn the politics of those we disagree with, how are we a better or healthier society? There is more to public dialogue than "delivering the hard zinger." Bill Raspberry understood that. If only more of us did.