Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Little Soul Searching

We are on Sarah Palin's targeted list. The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of the gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action.
Gabrielle Giffords, March 25, 2010

It's time to do a little soul searching about the rhetoric we hear on the radio, how our children are being raised. When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government—-the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik

Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world.
Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers

The mass shooting of Democratic US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' "Congress On Your Corner" event in northern Tucson yesterday is obviously a tragedy with (as is almost always the case) quite a complex analysis. Less than 24 hours afterwards, information is trickling in about the motives of the shooter(s). The primary gunman, Jared Loughner, whose application to the US Army was recently rejected, is a local high school and community college dropout and who was described as a "goth" and "loner" in high school. He comes from a broken home and his recent writings and YouTube clips refer to severe mistrust in the US government, the lack of English in southern Arizona conversations and proposals to change US currency to gold.

Pima County Sherrif Dupnik called for soul-searching, but offered his own early opinions:

Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik did not ascribe a motive to the shooting but lashed out at what he called a climate of "vitriol that has permeated the political scene and left elected officials facing constant threats.

"And unfortunately Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital," he said. "We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

He went on to point a finger at the media.

"I think it's time as a country that we do a little soul-searching. Because I think it's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out, from people in the radio business, and some people in the TV business that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in," Dupnik said.

Referring to the increasing vitriol, he said, "that may be free speech, but it may not be without consequences."

Those close to the Tucson political scene, like Dupnik (who endorsed Giffords), know that Giffords barely won re-election in November (less than 4,000 votes) over Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly who campaigned on, yes, the untrustworthiness of government while brandishing guns in campaign advertisements. He invited folks to join him last summer to shoot automatic weapons at campaign events entitled "Get on Target for Victory" and "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office." On top of this, national Tea Party celebrity Sarah Palin tweeted to followers last spring with rhetoric like "Don't retreat, instead reload!," referring followers to her Facebook page that had a US map with key upcoming congressional leaders (including Giffords) who voted for health care reform (below).

And, remember, this is one example of many signs and t-shirts displayed at Tea Party events over the past couple of years:

Meanwhile, Jeff Flake, the GOP congressman from Phoenix, drove down to Tucson to support Giffords and told reporters that he thought any sort of connection to ugly political rhetoric and this act of violence was "premature." In addition, the GOP US Senator from Arizona, John Kyl, told CBS in an interview:

It's probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge that there are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do? Then they commit terrible crimes like this.

Kyl's words are deceptive. It feeds the lie that people are just "mentally unstable," just "f*#-ing crazy": they just "go off" without any warning whatsoever. They are born crazy and it's only a matter of time until someone gets hurt. And by the way, I seriously don't know too many people (regardless of mental stability) with "a coherent political philosophy." We live in a fragmented world. Coherence was so Cold War era, pre-Cable and internet. Various forms of humanity respond in all sorts of creative ways to their insecure and power-hungary leaders and demagogues who give them a counterfeit source of strength and certainty in a culture of confusion and complexity. But if you are "mentally unstable" it's probably quite difficult to fact check lies like "death panels" and "government takeover" of health care.

It is truly sad that we live in a society that can only really offer a 22-year-old loner from a broken home desperately-needed structure with guaranteed higher education, health care, housing and a job by signing up for 4 years of the military (which will probably mean at least 1 tour to Afghanistan to fight a meaningless war). What happens when someone in Loughner's situation is rejected from the Army, his last, best hope? The same thing that happens half-way around the world with Islamic fundamentalism. It's a well-worn formula: Desperation + Demagogues + Guns = Insanity. It's a miracle it doesn't happen more often.

The kind of analysis that is needed with this kind of targeted and premeditated violence must uncover the complexity of evil that eventually boils over into the lives of others. To be fair, this is not just about the dangers of "hate speech." It is far deeper than hatred. All sorts of systemic factors lead to hate: we are formed (far more than most of us acknowledge) by patterns systematized by family, social, political, economic, (non)religious and media outlets. Violence and discord breed fear and anxiety and more violence and discord. And with that said, knowing that there are plenty of socially formed, malcontent and mentally unstable people roaming around the US (with guns) every political leader and media personality should show a whole lot more sensitivity when it comes to their rhetoric.

A deeper, mature analysis should also shatter any simple notion that exists in our national imagination that explains all social evils by focusing on personal responsibility and autonomy: sometimes individuals just make bad decisions. This sweeps root causes under the carpet forever. As Martin Luther King proclaimed in his greatest letter during one of his many unjust imprisonments 50 years ago, we live in a "web of mutuality." When unjust and unequal social and economic policies persist, they lead to desperation, scapegoating and violence that affect all of us.

Bad policies and bad ideas are viruses with a multitude of symptoms, victimizing all of us. They shape us into something less than human. Something led Loughner to embrace a simplistic and counterfeit narrative about what ails all of us. The answer is not that he was just "mentally unstable." The mentally disturbed are made, not born. Something triggered his mental instability to go richter. In the coming days and weeks, we'll find out more about what motivated this killer (and his associates). And after we find out more, our prayer is that this tragedy may refocus our efforts to point out the kinds of systemic and violent (foreign and domestic) evil that strip us of almost all dignity so that we can work tirelessly for their redemption.

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