David Lyons

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The charge to our panel refers to "the deterioration of the political conversation," to "deep ... divisions in society," and to recent violence- especially the tragic events in Tuscon. It asks us to identify "the virtues required.for our common life as citizens in a democracy and for civil democratic conversation." I shall offer observations and conjectures on each issue, stressing the historical background.

Let me suggest, first,. that the nonconstructive and increasingly abusive character of our political discourse may be relatively mild manifestations of an even more troubling malaise of our society- commonplace unlawful violence. I wish to draw your attention to a neglected aspect of that problem. When violence is addressed, we usually focus on practices that are condemned and targeted by public officials and fail to consider the illicit role that officials themselves have often played. A central feature of our civilization since the earliest colonial times has been unlawful violence that is tolerated, encouraged, or engaged in by public officials.

Let us go back in time. Land and labor were the two great needs of early English colonists in mainland North America. Land was needed to accommodate increasing numbers of immigrants. Labor was mainly sought by those colonies, such as Virginia, that developed economies, and ultimately social systems, built upon the production and export of cash crops such as tobacco and cotton. The latter also created a demand for agricultural land.