Commentary: The Arizona shootings, and why nothing is going to change

Posted 10:34am on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011

It took all of about twenty-four hours for business to return to normal following last Saturday’s horrific murder of six innocent people and the near-assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, at a shopping plaza in suburban Tucson.

The gun zealots insisted that easy access to assault weapons wasn’t to blame for the incident.

Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona insisted that the state’s deeply divisive political culture wasn’t to blame, either. After the sheriff supervising the investigation termed Arizona "a mecca for prejudice and bigotry" during a press briefing, Kyl countered on Face the Nation: "There are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do?"

And Sarah Palin wasn’t to blame, either, for creating a map with crosshairs over Arizona, during the 2010 campaign, suggesting Gifford needed to be "taken out." According to an email Palin wrote, read on air-by Glenn Beck: “Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence” – a non-argument that neatly runs a circle around the question of whether or not Palin actually did incite violence with her deeply misjudged map.

Following all this (il)logic, nobody’s to blame, except Jared Loughner, an apparently loose screw, who could have ended up targeting just about anyone. What a relief: Now we can all get back to calling each other names, calling for each other’s heads, and not accepting any of responsibility for the consequences of our words and actions.

The killings in Arizona have been widely labeled as "shocking," though frankly they seem to me the opposite of "shocking" – which is to say, entirely and utterly predictable. What exactly did people expect to happen now that civil discourse has become impossible; images of guns and violence are bandied about in political campaigns; and grown men refer to each other as "pinheads" on cable television news programs? That we would all eventually get tired of arguing and sit down over a polite cup of tea to resolve our differences.

Don’t think I’m taking political sides here, either. As disgusted as I was by the reactions of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, I’m just as peeved by a number of people on my (admittedly left-leaning) Facebook friend list. On Monday I stumbled upon this status update from a friend: “Sarah Palin is a hatemonger, a bigot, a hypocrite, a quitter, an incompetent, a liar, a dissembler (worse than a liar!) and a f------ moron. If you disagree with me, please defriend immediately.”

The enthusiastic comments that followed suggested no awareness that this person is every bit as guilty as Palin in using vitriol and in trafficking in dangerous "us-versus-them" ideologies.

I wish I felt even an iota of optimism, that some good will come out of tragedy, and that people of all political stripes will realize that the hysteria needs to stop. But I don’t. If anything, I fear that the poison that seems to be coursing through Arizona is soon to spread to Texas, where the State Legislature has just begun its biannual session, and where dozens of bills relating to immigration issues are about to be debated. Thus far, we’ve been fortunate that both sides on the political divide saying that Arizona’s immigration laws are not right for Texas.

But it’s hard to imagine such a fight is going to remain civil for very long – certainly not with politicians like Rep Debbie Riddle, a Republican from Tomball, and Sen. Dan Patrick, a Republican from Houston, are introducing ever=harsher new bills that mostly seem designed to foment xenophobia.

It’s impossible to grasp the historical stakes of an era while you’re living through it – so maybe, if we’re lucky, things will simmer down on their own. But I can’t be the only one who feels that, as a nation, we’re on a tipping point. What happens next isn’t just up to the politicians – it’s up to all of us.

We need to take responsibility for our words and demand that others take responsibility for theirs. We need to call out those politicians who pander to and feed off divisiveness – and then vote them out of office if they continue to do so.

Most of all, in an age where talk is so very cheap and where we allow the rage to become so all-consuming that it drives us to violence, we all really need to shut up and try listening to one another.

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