Violence in the Desert, Violence in Our Hearts
12 January 2011 — Tucson, Arizona
The mainstream consensus is that Jared Loughner was deranged, and the Tucson tragedy, however regrettable, is just another of those things that happen in a crowded, complicated, difficult world. What comes to mind: the Cuyahoga River of Ohio, at one point so polluted it burst into flames. One might have said then that the pollution was just one of those things, the product of a crowded, complicated, difficult world, and yet today, because we collectively agreed to prioritize clean water, anglers are fishing from its banks.
I’m not writing about handgun controls, though the killings present a textbook case, to be interpreted pro or con as you see fit. I’m writing about my country’s constant choice of war over peace, violence over diplomacy, anger over love.
I first met Gabrielle Giffords early in 2001, when I co-hosted the founding of a Tucson chapter of the Stonewall Democratic Club. I’m a rangy, six-foot, two-hundred pound guy and I dwarfed her, a small, fine-boned woman. And yet from that meeting I recall not her diminutiveness but her large presence – radiant and self-confident. I encountered her many times over the coming decade, to the point where I consider her, if not a friend at least a dear acquaintance.
Around Tucson that’s no particularly remarkable claim. She is a politician’s politician – she works hard at meet-and-greet, she has a remarkable memory for names and faces, without prompting she knows my name and my concerns and has been completely present to both. In the face of rising invective from right and left – and plenty of left-wingers grumbled at her fence-balancing, most notably at her staunch support for easy access to guns – she kept her cool. In contrast to her opponents, Giffords thrives on diversity – as a woman and a Jew she is close to being the Other, with a gay Hispanic among her principal aides.
In the district she became known for her unshakeable stance regarding two hot-button issues: She argued that the nation and its business community need some form of national health care, and that – though she supported tighter border controls – all people, regardless of citizenship, must be treated with dignity and respect. Founded in compassion, those stances made her a target for the escalating vitriol of our national politics. Her district juxtaposes the dark-skinned funny-talking Otherness of Mexico with the in-migration of political conservatives who buy up the beautiful land, ignorant or indifferent or hostile to the fact that Spanish-speaking people arrived here first, in 1540, when the region already hosted a substantial Native population. Amid this volatile mix, using charm, political acumen, beauty, and good cheer, she reached across political boundaries and borders so successfully that she fended off repeated challenges from the Republican right.
We may never know Jared Loughner’s deepest motivations. What we do know is that they were formed in a country where violence is considered an acceptable response to an encounter with otherness.
Irrespective of laws governing their possession, handguns are intended to inspire fear. Mess with me and I’ll blow your head off, they say, with the shooter determining what constitutes messing and questions asked later.
We duplicate that philosophy in our national politics. As a means of cultivating fear, our leaders fabricate conspiracies (“the Axis of Evil,” “weapons of mass destruction”) where none exist. Politicians and pundits demonize those who speak a different language or use different names for God, inviting their followers to do the dirty work. Not that our elected officials are solely responsible. Our biggest-budget movies (e.g., Avatar) enshrine the notion that white men must take up guns to save hapless dark-skinned people from horrors other white men perpetrate. Violent language directed at gays remains acceptable in Congress and in the media. Violence against women is dismissed as another unfortunate but inevitable aspect of a crowded, complicated, difficult world.
We want to believe that Jared Loughner is a monster, but he is a human being. We wring our hands over his monstrosity, absolving ourselves of responsibility, instead of acknowledging that the murders might have been averted, because that would require us to engage in some serious soul-searching.
In Flannery O’Connor’s story A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a mass murderer is about to kill his last victim, an elderly grandmother. Just before he shoots, she achieves redemption – she reaches out her hand and says, “You’re one of my babies.” Or, as St. Paul would have it, “ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” or, as the Buddhists would have it, “no duality” — no separation between us and the other, even when the other is guilty of the most heinous crimes.
As recently as Vietnam, pacifists were included, albeit on the fringe, in our national conversations. Now no one wants to hear the hard truth that we are responsible for our actions – that those in power, among whom I include myself, are enabling if not condoning this slide to a place where we shrug our shoulders at violence.
Our climate of violence, in word or in deed, is no accident but the result of decisions made by voters and leaders and even certain clergy. This was the world in which Jared Loughner came of age, the air he breathed and in which he chose to take up the gun.
In this great country, courtesy of the First Amendment, we are free to say what we wish without fear of government reprisal. But because we can do something, must we do it? Because we have power, must we use it? How may we nurture an environment not of fear but of civility, in which we acknowledge that words have power as the first step toward restraining ourselves in their use?
Here the Tea Partiers are right: We cannot rely on the government, whose intervention worsens the problem by requiring security measures that threaten important freedoms. We must police ourselves. We must relearn and teach anew the small courtesies of daily language. We must share power, knowing that what seems like an individual sacrifice is our collective gain. We must enshrine diplomacy as our first response to violence – local, national or international.
Where does one find the courage required to not fight back, whether in word or deed? As the world’s most powerful nation we have never much bothered to ask the question, which is why we are endlessly stuck in the cycle of violence, see our response to September 11.
We remember Dr. King for his civil rights victories. We forget or misplace the commitment to nonviolence in which they took place.
. . . hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. . . . Somewhere somebody must have a little sense and that’s the strong person. . . . Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil, and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.
How do I, who find handguns to be an invitation to violence, make and sustain peace with those – some of them my closest relatives and friends – who feel the need to carry them? In engaging this koan, I look to Gabby Giffords’ masterful diplomacy. Handguns are not going away any faster than their owners’ fears, and so we who love peace must figure out how to acknowledge and address those fears, because the way forward lies not in confrontation but in embrace. By example – the most powerful method of teaching – we must persuade people to lay down their guns.
This is not going to happen overnight, or in my lifetime, but Jared Loughner has handed each of us a terrible opportunity: Mercy is by definition a virtue of the powerful. Those of us who have power can create an example of peace built on the foundation of the victims’ suffering. We can clean up our rivers of words. We can create a world in which our children grow up understanding civility as the norm. We can beat our guns into plowshares and brave the Creator’s world unarmed. We can turn the other cheek.