Seven Reflections on the Arizona Massacre
On January 8, 2011, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others were gunned down in a horrific massacre in Tucson. The 40-year-old Giffords, who was greeting constituents outside a Safeway supermarket, is clinging to life after a bullet passed through her brain. Doctors say she has a “reasonable” chance of survival, but at least six are dead. The suspect, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, is in custody, and authorities are searching for a second man who might have been involved in the shootings.
What can we say about such a senseless and coldblooded act that hasn’t already been said? Probably not much, but here are some thoughts that came to mind as the tragedy unfolded…
1. Polarization has its consequences. First came Bush Derangement Syndrome, then Obama Derangement Syndrome. We’re living through the most deeply polarized era in U.S. history since the 1960s, which (probably not by sheer coincidence) was marked by a series of traumatic assassinations. Concerned observers have cited the alarming level of vitriol emanating from the left and right fringes these days. And they’re right: disputes between ideological extremists have escalated to something resembling civil warfare, complete with the vocabulary of war: we no longer respectfully disagree; we need to “fight tyranny” and “silence” or even “take out” our “enemies” before they “rob us of our freedom.”
Over the top, certainly. A little out of touch with reality, too. And the extremists just keep stepping up the distorted rhetoric in direct response to the distorted rhetoric from the other camp. But should we force Americans to squelch their warlike verbal outbursts? No, that’s just not the way we operate here. We can undercut the power of extremist rhetoric simply by giving more prominence to outspoken centrist voices in the media.
2. Arizona is the canary in the coal mine. As a border state plagued by immigration issues, Arizona is at the epicenter of a controversy that threatens to rip us apart: do we treat illegal immigrants and their offspring as criminals, or do we welcome anyone who wants to start a new life in this country? Are the opponents of illegal immigration racists? Are the pro-immigrant liberals opening the door to the Latinization (and eventual impoverishment) of the U.S.? So far no viable middle ground has appeared, and tempers are just as overheated as ever — especially in Arizona.
3. Moderates are under attack. Of course Gabrielle Giffords is an extreme example, but the truth is that being a moderate today means doubling your chance of making enemies. Here was one of our best and brightest rising politicians: a fair-minded, independent, nuanced thinker — a moderate Democrat who opposed Arizona’s tough illegal immigrant law but supported tight border controls. In today’s extremist political climate, that’s enough to invite attacks from both camps. During the 2010 campaign, Sarah Palin targeted her in cross-hairs on a now-infamous political map of the U.S. A columnist at the left-leaning Daily Kos who disagreed with her harrumphed that “she’s dead to me.” Still think moderates are wishy-washy saps who lack the courage to take a stand? Right.
4. We still don’t know the shooter’s political views.
Loughner might have been a wingnut on the extreme right or left… or he might just have been a nut. It hardly matters. What disturbs me is the confluence of insanity and intellectualism. The kid obviously liked to dabble in ideas — his online writings included some incoherent nonsense about mind-control and creating a new currency. Crazy people with deeply held ideas are dangerous.
5. That Second Amendment thing. How did a semi-automatic weapon find its way into the hands of an unstable young man? And (at the risk of offending all those red-blooded American gun enthusiasts) why should any citizen be allowed to own a semi-automatic weapon? I’m not against simple handguns for self-defense. But assault weapons belong in the military. No exceptions. And please don’t quote me the Second Amendment: its purpose was to enable the formation of a “well-regulated militia” — not to empower isolated lunatics with a grudge to settle. We have to pass gun-control legislation that keeps assault weapons out of the hands of private citizens.
6. Consider the “collateral damage.” Not only has the gunman truncated a promising political career, but he murdered at least six people who should still have been alive today: John Roll, Arizona’s chief federal judge, by all accounts an upstanding and well-liked (if controversial) public servant… Giffords’ 30-year-old aide Gabe Zimmerman… three senior citizens who wanted to meet their congresswoman… and perhaps saddest of all, nine-year-old Christina Green, granddaughter of former Phillies’ manager Dallas Green. Born on 9/11 (yes, in 2001), Christina had just been elected to her school’s student council and was invited by a neighbor to come out and meet Giffords. I can imagine what that neighbor is going through today. Deranged people with automatic weapons aren’t especially selective when it comes to choosing their victims.
7. Maybe the massacre will bring us together. Or maybe not. Politicians on both sides of the aisle — including President Obama and House Speaker Boehner — were quick to denounce the shootings and praise Rep. Giffords. That’s a step in the right direction. I’m hoping that bipartisan cooperation becomes the rule rather than the exception. I’m also hoping that Americans everywhere will ponder the consequences of the political animosities that have ripped us apart over the past decade. E pluribus unum, remember?