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I can’t get the image of a young, smiling, 9-year-old girl out of my mind. Excited by her recent election to her school’s student council, she was brought by a neighbor to a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center to observe a female role model, a congresswoman, meet and greet constituents. Perhaps she would’ve talked with the congresswoman, had a chance to discuss the nature of public service, something the young girl, Christina Green, was interested in pursuing.

Instead, as we all know, Christina’s trip to observe American democracy in action turned into a tragedy, the deaths of six people, including this young girl born on another tragic day, Sept. 11, 2001. Christina was aware her day of birth was a horrific day for her country. She had been photographed and featured in a book, “Faces of Hope, Babies Born on 9/11,” and understood fully the significance of the day.

Yet, Christina’s mother told ABC News that her young daughter created her own idea of what 9/11 could represent for her country.

“She didn’t really look at 9/11 as so much a tragedy like the rest of us did. She looked at it as an opportunity for change, for hope,” Christina’s mother said.

The irony of what awaited this young girl, eager to witness democracy up close, could, if we allow it, be a clarion call to all of us to recreate a more civil participatory democracy that future Christina Greens will want to join.

No one but the Arizona shooter was responsible for the tragic events of January 9. His politics appear to be as muddled and paranoid as his thought processes. The almost immediate attempts by some to classify his position on the political spectrum are misguided, irrelevant and fruitless, as is the frivolous discussion of whether the shooter is a terrorist.

What matters, what counts, is that we take an honest, searing look at how we are now practicing this precious democracy entrusted to us to carry forward to future Americans like Christina Green. We discredit our uniquely American form of democracy when we practice hate speech instead of civil discourse, when we seek to inflame rather than inform, when we abandon the attempt to influence with facts and passionate argument, and instead resort to menacing character vilification of those who hold differing views.

When public figures exhort an audience by shouting, “If ballots don’t work, bullets will,” as a radio talk show host and just-announced chief of staff to a newly-elected congressman said recently, the ugly rhetoric has gone much too far. The woman who spoke those words was dismissed from her political appointment.

We have the chance, each of us, to begin today to say no more, not for me, I won’t be a silent participant in the demonization of others for political gain or private profit. We can, starting today, refuse to listen to those who demean our public political dialogue with terms like thugs, leftist loons and right-wing whackos, as if those who differ with us are enemies, not simply participants in democracy, and no facts or explanations are required to justify the derogatory slander.

We have the chance, each of us, to heed our own practice of reasoned civility, to resolve within ourselves to respect the heritage of the democracy we are shaping before the eyes of the young people who will learn by our example every bit as much as they will learn from the words of history.

It is even more critical that we recreate our public discourse now, today, before the emotional and painful public dialogue begins on reducing government spending and programs, discussions we know will create sharp divisions of opinion.

Christina Green, and every 9-year-old in the nation, deserves better from us than what we’ve displayed, or accepted as normal, in the last few years. If we choose, and if we act on that choice, individually, Jan. 8, 2011, could be as much of an opportunity for change and hope that Christina believed was possible from the tragedy that occurred on her birth date.

Will we accept the challenge on her behalf?

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