The tragedy in Cottonwood, Minn., where four schoolchildren died in an accident caused by an illegal immigrant without a valid driver's license, has brought out the best in Minnesotans -- a community pulling together in a time of grief, the kindness of strangers, the prayers of thousands.

It also has brought out the worst: Anger, bigotry and politically-charged complaints about immigrants, the vast majority of whom are here legally.

Some of the anger is natural. Fatal accidents caused by irresponsible driving always upset us, whether the party at fault was playing with an iPod or driving drunk, driving a luxury car or a junker -- whether he or she was black or white, homegrown or here illegally.

But at a time like this -- when anger is tinged with racism and resentment in a season of charged political debate -- it is important to think carefully about what measures might help public safety, and what might hurt it.

The focus right now should be on the loss of four children, and the enormous grief suffered by the families and the town. But anger is powerful. Some people have moved on already, from mourning to murder.

"She should be swinging by her neck on the end of a rope," one blogger wrote about the driver on a website called Lake Minnetonka Liberty. And there was more where that came from. The trip from rage to lynch mob mentality can be short.

What would be a better response to this tragedy?

What if we raid the businesses who employ illegal immigrants, rip the workers away from their families, and deport them?

Oops. We're already doing that: About 200,000 were arrested and deported in 2006, including several hundred employed at a Swift & Co., packing plant in Worthington, Minn., not far from Cottonwood. There are millions of undocumented workers here. If you want to round them up and deport them all, you'll need barbed wire and jackboots.

And replacements.

How about if our politicians start turning up the heat by holding news conferences where they get all grim-faced, condemn illegal immigration and announce fantasy plans to crack down on it -- not because they have any intention of actually cracking down from St. Paul, 1,500 miles north of the border, but because it is shrewd election politics and feeds raw red meat to the rednecks?

Oops. We already have Tim Pawlenty. The governor's spokesman couldn't wait for the funerals to pass before trying to score points: The governor, he said Friday, thinks "we should do more to crack down on illegal immigration."

The night before, Pawlenty said at a prayer service that Minnesotans were "united in grief" by the tragedy. The next day, he went back to dividing.

Very vicey presidenty.

Illegal immigration is a national problem. You can build a wall around this country tomorrow and it will still be a problem. Solving it will be complicated and involve not slogans and politicking but difficult choices. Choices that might make sense, even if they don't pacify the vigilantes.

Do you want to feel safer on the roads? Well, when it comes to keeping unlicensed illegal immigrants off our highways, the governor of New York offered the only sensible plan. The solution, Eliot Spitzer said last year, is to let illegal immigrants apply for driver's licenses. That way, they might be illegal residents, but they would be legal drivers, subject to the same licensing, insurance and identity requirements as everyone else.

It ain't perfect: Plenty of American-born drivers, without licenses, kill people. And plenty of American-born legal drivers make tragic mistakes. But if illegal immigrants drove legally (many police chiefs wish they could), they could be policed and, if necessary, punished -- just like us red-blooded Americans.

Not letting them get licenses "does nothing" for safety, Spitzer said. "All it does is drive immigrants into the shadows, creating a class of people with no public records."

Yep. That's what we have.

But Spitzer's plan was shot down in a New York minute, killed by an angry outcry from people so obsessed with "illegals" that they would rather have them drive in the shadows, without licenses, lying about their identities, living in fear that they might encounter police, fleeing from accidents and, sometimes, doing something desperate. Smart, huh?

Lynch mob wannabees have a much simpler solution to the problem of illegal drivers.

Simple is how hate works. Nick Coleman •