There are times when the United States seems like a strange and distant place. That distance has seemed larger than usual in the aftermath of the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, an incident that claimed six lives and wounded 14 others. The reaction in the U.S. to that horrific incident the morning of Jan. 8 has displayed some of the best and the most confusing aspects of our partner and ally. Tragedy of this scale usually does.

A seemingly deranged man emptied the magazine of a semiautomatic pistol — 30 bullets in a matter of seconds — as Ms. Giffords, a three-term conservative Democrat, participated in a “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket, where she met constituents. The alleged shooter was grabbed by bystanders. He is said to be a loner, with a long history of antisocial behavior.

It is difficult (if not impossible for most people) to comprehend the anger and confusion that would drive an individual to try to kill a public figure; sadly, Japan has ample experience with such incidents. We are in no position to challenge the failure to lock up someone with a record of antisocial and potentially dangerous behavior. What is remarkable from our vantage point — and is a long-standing question for many non-Americans — is the ease with which those individuals can acquire weapons of extraordinary lethality. The utter illogic of a society teeming with guns with little control on their use and possession seems self-evident to us.

But logic has little chance when confronted by the power of the gun lobby in the U.S. The National Rifle Association has effectively removed gun control from the U.S. political agenda. Thus, no one is surprised that there has been no new legislation to limit access to guns in the wake of the shooting. Even more remarkably, there do not appear to be efforts to try to get at the problem by different means, such as by restricting availability of large ammo clips (the 30-bullet variety that the shooter used) or by restricting sales of automatic weapons.

A second dimension of this incident that befuddles outsiders is the vitriol and anger that now colors U.S. politics. Disagreements among politicians are not uncommon — differences are the essence of politics. But in recent years, U.S. political discourse has taken an ugly turn. The country seems to have entered an era in which every political battle is zero-sum, in which there can only be winners and losers. Compromise has become a dirty word.

More alarming still, disagreements are equated with disloyalty. There can be no loyal opposition. This has created an environment in which each side feels aggrieved and is quick to take offense and even quicker to give it. There is a reflexive tendency to tar the other side with responsibility for all social ills. The result is a political discussion that resembles shouting more than a reasoned consideration of problems and responses. Even if there is no direct evidence that links this feverish political debate to violence, it defies reason to think that there is no connection between uncivilized discourse and uncivilized behavior. That does not mean that societies should limit free speech (although it already does so in certain narrow situations), but it also does not mean that leaders cannot accept self-imposed limitations to set an example.

At the same time, this tragedy has also shown some of the very best of the U.S. After the shooting, historian Allan Ginsberg wrote that “Last week we saw a white Catholic male Republican judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean American combat surgeon, and this all was eulogized by our African-American President.” The strength of the U.S. is its ability to unite and work toward a single purpose despite diversity and political discord.

Then there was the stirring address by U.S. President Barack Obama four days after the shooting. Mr. Obama frequently has to address exceptional moments, all too often in the garb of mourner in chief. Those speeches have to rally and unite a nation, and they require the threading of a rhetorical needle. They have to acknowledge the solemnity of the moment without giving into depression and provide reasons for hope without being insensitive.

By almost every account, Mr. Obama hit the mark. He focused on the victims and their lives. He spoke to and for the entire nation, despite the animus that attends most of his actions and statements. Of course, the speech was grounded in a particular setting. He spoke to American values and his country’s national purpose. But his call for reflection and action should provide comfort and support beyond American shores. His message offered a moral compass that transcends any national outlook.

Mr. Obama provided leadership. He urged all those who heard him to do better, to strive for more. It is a message his country needed to hear; it is now up to them to heed that message.

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