After Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson, some have pointed the finger at inflammatory political rhetoric.
Many singled out Sarah Palin’s now-infamous “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” tweet and her ‘Crosshairs’ campaign map, which included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ district, as a sign that some politicians have gone too far in stoking vitriol against their political opponents. (Since the shooting, Palin reportedly emphasized in an e-mail that she “hates violence.”) Others reject any connection between the shooter, who does not appear to espouse any coherent ideology, and our current political climate.
What are the ethical and moral implications of incendiary political language?
Within hours of 22-year-old old Jared Loughner’s attempted murder of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in which 19 people were shot, six people killed –including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl– the predictable narratives were all in place.
First, we had politicians on all sides expressing their appropriate horror, condolences and prayers in somber, measured, non-partisan tones. Then we had right- and left-wing pundits on cable, radio and the blogosphere using the tragedy (even as they were denying doing so) for political advantage, even as Giffords remained in surgery and we knew nothing about the alleged gunman. From the left came the expected attacks on the tea party, especially for its role in Arizona’s heated immigration battles, the accusations that the militarist-laced rhetoric of Palin, Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Bachmann created the environment of hate that fostered this violence, and the claim blaming the tragedy on the lack of any serious gun control in Arizona. Like clockwork came the response from the right arguing that the left was shamelessly using the tragedy to score points, was just as guilty of inflammatory rhetoric and that simplistic cause-effect analysis linking heated rhetoric to a crazy person massacring people, was irresponsible if not itself incendiary. So, not surprisingly, the very climate of hate each side accused the other of causing was exacerbated by their comments.
A fourth narrative depoliticized and limited the meaning of this tragedy by claiming that the murderer was a mentally ill, deeply disturbed, alienated loner. In a country of over 300 million people these tragedies will happen and all we can do is try to improve our mental health system to deal with deeply troubled people falling through our societal cracks – something that clearly did not happen here though there were plenty of warning signs.
Eerily, this reaction was almost identical to that of the Fort Hood massacre perpetrated by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan in November 2009. Then, there were the somber nonpartisan expressions of horror, condolences to victims’ families, and prayers for the wounded. There was the left – right pundit parrying. This time with the right going first and accusing the left of contributing to the vulnerability of Americans because of its politically correct reluctance to see Hasan’s act as a terrorist product of his Islamic faith. The left responding in kind claimed that seeing Hasan as anything more than a psychotic lone murderer was not only inflammatory and racist but exacerbated the very national security about which the right was so concerned.
The result of these predictable tropes: collective sadness at the loss of life and more division and polarization of Americans.
Aren’t we tired of these banal story lines? Isn’t it time for us to have a different type of conversation in response to this national trauma – the rare attempt in our country’s history to assassinate a member of congress? Is there an alternative way we can think about this that might help us all move, at least a little bit, beyond our presumptive interpretations?
Though religion has much to be ashamed of these days as it is more often than not is merely a combustible cheerleader of existing political positions, there is a piece wisdom found in many religious traditions that could help us respond more productively to this moment. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides teaches that in a time of national trauma our impulse is to immediately look to blame someone as a way to gain control over the destabilizing fear, anger, vulnerability, and even guilt evoked by the trauma. But this understandable response only provides us the illusion of control as in reality it hardens existing views and limits the ability for new insights and relationships to emerge that could actually mitigate the fear, anger, vulnerability and guilt everyone, at some level, feels.
Instead, says Maimonides, the most productive response is Introspection: every member of the body politic should ask how we individually and how the communities to which we are most connected have in any way, shape, or form – no matter how directly or indirectly – contributed to what happened. The psycho-spiritual and psycho-social assumption underlying this is that what makes something a national trauma is that it affects us all and given we are interdependent there are ways, both discernible and indiscernible, we each individually and communally played a role in this drama and need to hold ourselves accountable. When public officials are gunned down in public, it is critically important to figure out why and to ask questions and seek answers, but because these questions and answers will inevitably involve politics, trying not to simply reaffirm our existing positions – the very positions that got us to this point- is a good idea if we want new understanding.
We need a moratorium on blaming someone else or insisting some other group is more responsible than us and instead devote some time to questioning ourselves. How have we communicated our views in words and images in ways that make people with whom we disagree not simply unable to hear us but worse afraid of us?
How have we stereotyped and reduced people with whom we disagree as traitors, enemies, bigots, racists, pinheads, worst people in the world…that while obviously not making any of us accomplices to murder surely is not helpful to us in addressing very difficult issues facing our country?
Is there any part of our own view not completely correct? Do we understand the views of those with whom we disagree well enough to even know if there may be a partial truth in their views?
Do we have any uncertainty at all about our own positions?
Skillfully attacking and artfully demonizing each other is admittedly entertaining – and to some extent in the face of destabilizing events it actually mitigates some of our anxiety — but ultimately it is deflective of responsibility at whatever level of influence we have and a lot less effective than each of us stepping back, looking at ourselves, and learning something new about who we are in this difficult moment for our country. And if we think this wisdom is naïve and that the other side will never do this it may be we have allowed cynicism to trump hope and that we are reluctant to engage in this self-critique lest we discover something uncomfortable about ourselves. Anyway, there will be plenty of time to get back to blaming each other.
Introspection takes far more discipline and fierceness than attacking someone else. To take apart one’s own habitual views requires far more courage, discernment, creativity and commitment to truth than repeatedly offering the same opinions at ever-higher decibels.
Each of us needs to ask whether we should develop and demand new self-imposed norms of communicating in the public space given the extraordinary new power of the internet and blogosphere to spread images and rumors, to decontexualize our most passionate comments, to desensitize us, and to encourage us to out do each other in ever greater outrageousness in order to simply be heard. We need to consider whether the immense pressures – economic, social, health, security – which have millions of Americans feeling hurt, fearful and vulnerable, ought to affect how hard we try to understand each other and how we disagree.
Over the next few years the challenges we will face – from the size of government, to the level of taxes, to immigration, to terrorism, to entitlements, to health care, to financial regulation, to medical ethics, to the environment – will cause some of the deepest divisions and conflicts many of us have ever seen in this country. These issues legitimately divide us philosophically, psychologically, theologically, and morally as they cut to the core of what it will mean to be an American and what our values are. They will be the source of enormous conflict and debate that we need to vigorously have, in fact far more vigorously and energetically than we have had to date. We will have to find the path to have disagreements that not only keeps us one country but that leads to new ideas and solutions.
If indeed we have suffered a national trauma as we claim it is so because as a nation we are all in this together. The trauma is the sinking feeling, independent of any blame, that something is wrong in the way we are dealing with each other. The FBI has gone down to Arizona but whatever it uncovers will not fundamentally address this trauma. Only we can make sense of this senseless attack by the kinds of conversations we have at our kitchen tables and coffee places, in our bars and on our blogs, in our media and in our malls, on cable and in Congress. We need to do so not because doing so would have prevented this tragedy or will prevent another but because our future as Americans is at stake.