Monday, January 10, 2011

After Tuscon, Making Gentle The Life Of This World


This blog is going to be focused on Canadian politics and public policy, and in these early days I really wanted to stick with that theme. However, the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others in Arizona strikes so many chords, on a human level and a political one, that it would seem wrong not to address it in some way.

The story is deeply compelling in a human level. A public servant who was, by all accounts, a talented and sincere public servant has had the life she and her family knew torn apart. A mom and dad are grieving the loss of a beautiful nine-year old girl who died because she wanted to meet her congresswoman and learn more about government. Four other families are grieving huge holes in their lives, others are still holding grim, awful vigils in hospital waiting rooms where their loved ones' lives still hang in the balance. The enormity of that pain calls every one of us to remember that tis is, first and foremost, a moment to care about the victims.

It is also, undeniably, a story about the health of democracy, a story about remembering how fragile democracy can be in an era of rather coarse debate. It is a moment when everyone of us has to be called to examine our words and our hearts as we debate issues in a crucible of tweets and sound bites.

As others have noted, every political assassination is, by definition, political. Jared Houghner, the sick and hate-filled young man who pulled the trigger, targeted Gabby Giffords because she was a politician, and whether reasons emerge that make sense to anyone but Houghner itself, his act was significant to him for that reason.

On cable news and social media, a sad debate has already emerged between right and left, each attempting to define Houghner's emerging ramblings in ways that might mean that he is "owned" by the other side; his anti-government rants being used to push him onto the lap of the nascent Tea Party movement, his anti-religious views being defined in some strange, defensive way as signs of liberalism. Sarah Palin's awful graphic showing crosshairs over districts where representatives voted for President Obama's health care bill has been brought forward for special attention, although the debates have taken irrelevant turns over whether it in fact "caused" Loughner's murderous spree or whether it is any worse than President Obama's invocation of Capone's maxim that his followers should bring a gun to a fight if their opponents bring knives.

Not only should no one rush to define the evil acts of a hate-filled killer in ideological terms, we need to accept that there will likely never be an explanation that fits some logical category of political statement. Crazy acts are, by definition again, crazy. They do not flow rationally from a premise. Loughner may well turn out to be a constitutional purist or a dope-smoking libertarian, but the path from those or any belief to hurling a hail of bullets into innocent children has leaps that are irrational and are his responsibility alone. Even if he was on Sarah Palin's email list, the journey from that to murder is his moral responsibility, and will never be one that flows in a way that makes sense to decent people anywhere.

And yet, that isn't the end.

There are certain terrible moments that sear themselves into our public consciousness because they do hold a mirror up to us, and force us to confront what our world is becoming. I still remember the moment we learned in the student union offices that Marc Lepine had targeted female engineering students for death in Montreal, and the collective shiver it caused for students everywhere. There was debate then, too, with one side arguing that Lepine's rampage reminded us of the misogyny in society and others insisting that crude beer ads did not suddenly cause a sane man to snap and shoot students.

Both sides were right, because they were arguing different points, too often not hearing each other in their haste to make their points.

Violent, murderous acts do not happen because somebody said or did any one thing, and individuals who commit violent acts must be held uniquely responsible for that final, terrible step. Yet even irrationally angry acts are often chosen within an environment that shapes what people do when they are irrational and angry. Suicide bombings and honor killings are irrational and evil acts, yet they occur within one cultural milieu and not within others because there is rhetoric and propaganda that defines what angry people may do if they are beyond reason. The drunken Browns' fan who attacked an 8 year old wearing a Jets jersey after the game was not turned into an obnoxious, violent jerk by the law-abiding fans around him -he was all that before the game started - but the fact he was at a football game is hardly irrelevant, either. Deviant people always go beyond what most would do, yes, but their sense of what they may do is defined by the moment happening around them. When we move the boundaries of what is acceptable, we also shape what lies just beyond those boundaries, even if decent people had every intention of staying within them.

It is no accident that the 1960s saw the United States suffer a series of gut wrenching political assassinations, losing a president and a brother on the cusp of the presidency; seeing the violent death of a civil rights leader committed to peace and an angrier one more willing to confront. It was an era when the nation had a toxic mix of racial change, clashing cultural values and an inability of each side to define the others in human terms. A consequence of this was that politicians were often revered or reviled not because of the stands they took but of the cultural symbols they became. Kennedy was a wealthy Cold Warrior who would be a centrist Democrat; Nixon's environmentalism and tax policy would likely make him the pinkest of Republicans today. Yet the clashing social issues of civil rights, law and order, peace and war made a toxic stew where people with different views weren't just opponents, they were enemies.

That is happening in America today. The debate over the health care bill isn't just about whether I should have to pay taxes and buy health insurance so my neighbor can have it, too. The bad economy, the social change heralded by President Obama's election, all of it is starting to create an environment where the greatest victory is proving you hate your opponent more than they other guy.

A congressman yells at the President during the State of the Union and raises more money because of it. In response, a congressman says that anti-health bill Republicans want people to "die quickly", and also raises more money from his partisans. Crosshairs - the sights used to target and kill- are used to identify political opponents. Candidates for Congress speak of gathering militias to deal with an out -of-control government, and the Glenn Becks of the world casually describe links between Obama and Hitler.

Increasingly in a world of 30 second ads and 140 character tweets, our opponents in politics are not mistaken or have the wrong priorities. They don't care, or are corrupt, or "pal around with terrorists". People who we disagree with have become socialists, fascists or Nazis so often that it seems impossible these unpopular ideologies could have so many adherents. Pumping a bullet into your congresswoman's head is easier for a sick person to view as a heroic act than it has ever been, because the distance to travel is so much shorter. After all, suicide bombers and honor killing family members do not see themselves as sick, violent cowards, but only more committed than those who share their views but not their willingness to act.

The ability to attack people and not ideas, to attribute dark motives to opponents rather than seek to understand, is not any more prevalent among the right than the left. Yet there is a narrative to American conservatism which is being misused by the shock troops of the right today.

America was born in revolution, the result of citizens taking up arms against a distant king who demanded the right to take from people without their consent. Their Constitution is written in this environment, and the emotional attachment to the rights to speak, assemble and bear arms flow from the view that citizens must always have this power of resistance. This is not a violent or evil ideology. Conservatives believe that, while individuals acting freely in their own interest may lead to certain evils (like Donald Trump having billions while kids can't afford to see doctors), greater evils result when governments get too powerful. An evil individual can harm those around him, but an evil government can do far more harm. We Canadians often wonder why American conservatives are not moved by millions without health care, and the answer is that they believe a government powerful enough to fix that problem is a government powerful enough to do far worse.

The right of citizens to take back their government is an important ideological flourish in the Constitution, yet we also have years of experience the Founders didn't to know the danger that can come when we romanticize this ideology to the point where we cry "tyranny" at things with which we simply disagree. If we do this, if we hint that disagreements are actually struggles which require revolution, we can plunge a country into a chaos where violence becomes the way we settle differences. (I have been to nations in Africa where they know just how hard it is to change that mind set, and how fragile a democracy can be when we forget the price of violence as a way to settle disagreements).

Republicans who want to invoke the honorable tradition of limited government must be very careful not to romanticize the revolution that gave birth to the country. Obama is not Hitler, nor is he a tyrant (just as such a charge against George W. bush would be preposterous). Yet when candidates for high office speak, as Sharron Angle did, of "Second Amendment remedies" if Obama could not be stopped at the ballot box, when leaders like Palin speak of "reloading" and "bulls eyes", when Republican ads show Founders returning to life and commanding a gathering of armies, they must be repudiated. The Founders may well have spoken of the right of citizens to resist a government of tyrants. Remember, too, that they knew the horrible, violent price of that resistance and how carefully the label of tyranny should be treated. Republicans and Tea Partiers who forget that warning dishonour their country.

When Martin Luther King was shot and killed, Bobby Kennedy when right to the impromptu vigils in the African-American neighborhoods of Indianapolis, ignoring warnings of his own safety, because something needed to be done to build bridges and avoid a spiral of violence. His unscripted remarks stand as one of the great speeches of modern politics. It is worth listening for yourself here.

Ladies and Gentlemen - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because...I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black - considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.

Of course, RFK himself was dead two months later, shot through the head by an assassin whose motives seemed just as crazy, just as twisted as this awful man in Tuscon. The murder of Kennedy was not an act of left or right, but it was undeniably of its time. I pray that in America, a nation rightly proud of its democratic tradition, there are politicians who can move from seeking plausible deniability for their words and can instead call citizens to common ground. The shooting of Gabby Giffords is the first sign on a road that descends to a very dark place. I wish them Godspeed as they debate whether they will treat that sign as a warning to pull back, or an excuse to descend further.

On a final note -- I know that in New Brunswick it will be easy to parse this post for some local political point. Please don't. Politics is a clash of ideas, and too often these sorts of warnings against dark political rhetoric create a kind of Puritanism where every snarky remark about an opponent gets lumped in with the worst remarks until everything goes. Let me say that I saw nothing in the last election, from my party or directed at it, which was the kind of violent imagery that is seeping into American politics. I may have labelled some tactics as helpful or unhelpful, and all of us including me have made cracks we regret, but no one did anything like call for Second Amendment remedies. We can disagree, as long as we remember that we are all citizens and called to see the humanity in each other.

What we can do is take pride in that. We are a province where haters on blogs are ignored or called to order, where attacking a Speaker or loosing your cool in the House are seen as shameful acts (even if done by generally decent people), where overly personal tactics seem to cost votes. Let's each rededicate ourselves to targeting our debate at ideas, not people, and remembering what a fragile gift it is to live in a world where power can be taken from one and given to another peacefully.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. The worse things get in the States, the luckier I feel that we have not gone that far yet. One hopes that this tragedy serves as a wake-up call for everyone and this terrible incident will not be repeated.