While there is little doubt about the facts of the Tucson tragedy, that one man pulled the trigger on the automatic revolver that shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, killed six others, and wounded 12 more, the open question is whether it is a teachable moment.
No one who heard the awful news on Saturday, January 8th, should have been surprised. Since the political rhetoric escalated during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Americans have being holding their breath expecting an assault on Barack Obama. Then the bombast surrounding 2009’s healthcare legislation led to a sharp increase in threats to Congresspeople and suggested that sooner or later there a Senator or Representative would be attacked. (Over the past twenty-four months, Giffords had been the target of multiple threats.) The United States seems to be on a long slide into a pit of violence and anguish.
Many fault America’s lax gun laws. Over the past few years there’s been a spurt in weapon purchases and there’s believed to be one gun for every person in the US. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to see how a legal change regarding firearm possession could have presented this tragedy.
Many fault our inadequate mental health system. Some say this tragedy could have been averted if the perpetrator had received counseling after his run in with school administrators (who recommended to his parents that he receive psychiatric treatment). But mental health facilities were dismantled during the Reagan Administration and are woefully inadequate throughout the US. At a time when most Republicans are calling for cutbacks in health services, in general, it’s unlikely that mental health will receive more support.
Many fault the media. Objective commentators feel the hate talk that fills right-wing radio and TV – specifically, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck – contributed to this crime; that there was digital contagion. That talk of killing this or that public figure has created a climate where disturbed individuals are more likely to take up arms against governmental officials. Certainly the hate talk is reprehensible, but the alternative – draconian limits on free speech – is unthinkable. And right-wing media is a huge and very successful business. Sarah Palin probably won’t be the Republican candidate for President, but she’ll make millions as a conservative media icon.
Many fault the political process. In recent years the gulf between Democrats and Republicans has widened. There’s a notable lack of comity in Congress; politicians, such as Michele Bachmann, make savage remarks that in another era would have brought ridicule but in this period brings fame and fortune. Once again, this seems unlikely to change in the short term. The Republican tactic of taking extreme positions – specifically calling upon Americans to take up arms to defend their life and liberties – worked for them in 2010. Why would they change when they’ve developed an approach – amplify and harness the rage of Americans – that is likely to sweep them back into power?
Many feel we need to engage in a “national dialogue.” That citizens from different persuasions need to sit down and talk about our hopes and dreams for America; we should search for ideological common ground. While this approach does need to be encouraged, the logistics are daunting. Americans tend to live in communities of like-minded individuals; those of us who want to dialogue would have to travel miles outside our comfort zone to be part of an assembly that represents the diverse sentiments that characterize our nation. And the dialogue groups would have to be expertly facilitated; for example, would non-gun owners feel comfortable in discussions with citizens packing weapons?
While the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords seems like a teachable moment, there remains the vexing question of how to take advantage of this. In his stirring memorial speech, President Obama said, “let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” But the President didn’t suggest next steps for us to take.
The United States is a religious country, where more than ninety percent of residents are believers and more than eighty percent identify as Christians. If there is to be a teachable moment stemming from the Tucson tragedy, it will have to happen in our churches, synagogues, temples, and meetinghouses.
While there are many ethical teachings that characterize the religion of Jesus, two of the most important are the Golden Rule – do unto others, as you would have them do unto you – and the admonition to speak the truth. How different American political rhetoric would be if our elected officials truly reflected these ethics: if they spoke the truth and acted as their brother and sister’s keeper. How different politics would be if, in the President’s words, we made sure “we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Yes, the Giffords’ shooting is a teachable moment. For every American who subscribes to the ethical teachings of Jesus.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer, retired Silicon Valley executive, and Quaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org