The Constitution belongs to all of us

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Two days after standing in the U.S. House of Representatives and reciting the First Amendment’s guarantee of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down outside a Tucson grocery store. The Congressional Democrat had been assembling with her constituents. At least six people died, and 12 (including Giffords) were wounded.

As details of this tragedy unfold in days to come, Americans should agree that the U.S. Constitution must be nurtured by the way we live, work and play each day. Some days pass routinely. Other days present joys worthy of mountain-top arias. Then there are days such as Saturday, when families are torn apart, and not even the Constitution can protect some people’s rights.

Our stewardship of the Constitution requires a certain attention to detail. Thursday’s recitation by members of the House might have been more compelling if they had read the document in its entirety and not selectively, leaving out parts they believe no longer apply. And it might have meant more if many representatives had not scooted out of the chamber during the reading. At the end, there were more empty chairs than elected officials.

The Constitution deserves our clear thinking. In November 2009 John Boehner — the man who last week became House Speaker — stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and electrified a Tea Party rally. He brandished a booklet and exclaimed passionately: “This is my copy of the Constitution. And I’m going to stand here with our Founding Fathers who wrote in the Preamble, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident. …’” Oh, how his idolators’ hearts fluttered. Some nodded, some swooned, undeterred by the fact that Boehner was citing the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

A few parts to ignore

Thursday’s recitation must have produced a few moments of “la-la-la, I can’t hear you” denial. Likely, the first of these came early, during the Preamble, with the utterance of that phrase so many people consider ghastly: “promote the general welfare.” To many in the chamber, the thought of every citizen enjoying what the Constitution bestows is a downright socialist notion.

Others in the House probably sat up eagerly as it came time to read their favorite part: the venerable Second Amendment, affirming their gun-ownership rights. But they must have winced and collapsed dejectedly upon hearing the amendment’s dreadful opening: “A well regulated … .” Not exactly what they wanted to hear.

Still others were rendered crestfallen by the reading of the 14th Amendment (if you’re born here, you’re a citizen), the 16th Amendment (empowering Congress to collect income taxes) and the 17th Amendment (creating direct election of senators by the people; many Tea Partiers advocate repeal).

Thursday’s ceremony got me thinking: When our state Legislature convenes on Monday, would a reading of our state constitution be in order? Well, that would be a bit unwieldy. As written in 1889, the document is 78 pages. It has 106 amendments, compared with the federal document’s 27. I’m guessing this reading would take us well into summer. Some would argue that leaving legislators inactive that long would be a good thing, but the looming deficit demands attention. So, best we leave the Constitution-reading as an exercise for inside the Beltway.

But mere recitation of the Constitution does not qualify as proper stewardship. Just as the guy with the most exterior Christmas lights is not the most religious person on the block, politicians who read only parts of the Constitution or skip out early are not necessarily the most patriotic people in the House. Beware those who wave the Constitution … while scheming to waive many of the freedoms it enshrines.

Tucson’s tragedy is America’s tragedy. A member of our Congress, sworn to obey our Founding Fathers, was shot by one of us. Others in her company were massacred. In the wake of such tragedy, let us reflect on what Giffords told us on Thursday, and remember that the Constitution deserves our full and abiding attention. It must be breathed into the life of every American.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.