Which Face Will Be Our Face?
Pundits and politicians from both sides of the ideological divide were quick with partisan reactions to the tragic shooting last Saturday in Tuscon Arizona. A man shot and critically wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed U.S. District Judge John Roll, along with five other people, during an informal townhall meeting by the Congresswoman.
Many liberals condemned right-wing rhetoric for inspiring the attack. Paul Krugman of the New York Times was among the most outspoken. “There isn’t any place [in a democracy] for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary . . . Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance – it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right.”
|Jared Loughner (left), the Tuscon|
Arizon shooter, and Christina Green
(right), his youngest victim
For their part, conservatives furiously denied any political connections or motivations for the shooting. The Wall Street Journal editorial board maintained, “On all available evidence, [the shooter] is a mentally disturbed man who targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and anyone near her in Tucson on Saturday because she was prominent and they were tragically accessible . . . Whatever confused political motives he expressed seem merely to be part of the maelstrom of his mental sickness.”
Conservatives pushed back at liberals, insisting the latter were disgusting in using a tragedy to promote their agenda. “I understand the desperation that Democrats must feel after taking a historic beating in the midterm elections . . . [but they] demonstrate precious little actual concern for America's political well-being when they seize on any pretext, however flimsy, to call their political opponents accomplices to murder,” wrote University of Tennessee Law Professor Glenn Reynolds in a Journal op-ed piece.
The truth lies somewhere between these two biased viewpoints, as it so often does. Considerable examples of his writings gleamed from the Internet as well as evidence seized from the shooter’s PC and home suggest that Jared Loughner was a deeply disturbed young man. Especially since 2005, he had been concerning family, friends, and classmates with his erratic and sometime violent statements and behavior.
One former fellow student at Pima Community College described Loughner as “an emotional cripple or an emotional child . . . He lacked compassion, he lacked understanding and he lacked an ability to connect.” Another student said Loughner “didn't have social intelligence” despite abundant academic intelligence.
A former high school friend posted on Twitter that the Loughner she knew was “left wing, quite liberal and oddly obsessed with the 2012 prophecy.” She noted that alcohol and drugs had left him ruined and ostracized.
Yet much of what Loughner posted and talked about in recent years had more of a right-wing flavor, even if he did not intend it as such. In particular, he was passionately distrustful of big government. He seemed to be a sucker for conspiracy theories and wild accusations. He labeled his planned attack on Giffords as an “assassination.”
So while it is disingenuous to suggest that Loughner’s motivations were primarily political, it is equally insincere to assert that he was completely unaware of or insulated from some of the sentiments and insinuations raised in current political debate. The anti-government rhetoric that may have helped reinforce Loughner’s twisted beliefs rests mostly with conservatives. This does not mean they intended to incite violence or even that it necessarily incited violence in Loughner.
Nonetheless, Loughner demonstrates to all of us the tragic consequences when passion overrides reason. He serves as a caution to politicians and pundits alike about the importance of restraint and non-inflammatory rhetoric in public discourse.
Ross Douthat of the New York Times sums it up best. “When our politicians and media loudmouths act like fools and zealots, they should be held responsible for being fools and zealots. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.” However, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post contributes an important counterpoint. “We must now insist with more force than ever that threats of violence no less than violence itself are antithetical to democracy.”
Some politicians expressed it well too. “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve,” said House Speaker John Boehner. But my favorite comes from Republican Representative Trent Franks of Arizona. On NBC’s Meet the Press, he declared this tragedy “an attack not only on freedom and the country itself; it’s an attack on humanity.”
Among the things that obsessed Loughner was language and grammar. A frequent theme in his writings and rants is the question, “What is government if words have no meaning?” It is a good question, even if he clearly meant it rhetorically. Loughner was sure that government and just about everything else was meaningless. He may well have regarded his violence as just one more casual act in a random existence.
Our Constitution and the other laws of our land are words on paper. They would be nothing more than that but possess meaning because they are living words, lived each day by ordinary and extraordinary Americans. Their devotion gives our government its legitimacy to impose rules and defend rights.
I think of Giffords, a government official who placed herself in harm’s way because she believed in the importance of connecting with the people she represented. I think of Roll, killed on his way home from church because he wanted to stop and shake the hand of a fellow public servant and friend.
I think of Dorwin Stoddard, who died by throwing himself between his wife and a bullet. A pastor at Mountain Avenue Church of Christ, he died demonstrating the Christian ideal that no person can show greater love than by willingly laying down their life for another.
I think of the courageous men and women in the crowd who wrestled Loughner to the ground and grabbed his ammunition as he paused to reload. I think of equally courageous men and women in that same crowd who frantically sought to aid and comfort the dying and wounded.
I think of Christina Green, the nine year old girl killed when she attended a political event. Just elected to her elementary school’s student council, she wanted to see democracy in action. Born on the day of the September 11 attacks, she considered herself a symbol of hope for our nation.
I think of John Green, Christina’s father, who put aside a parent’s crushing grief long enough to utter an almost unbelievably brave assertion of citizenship. Interviewed on NBC’s Today Show, he avowed, “In a free society, we are going to be subjected to people like [Loughner]. I prefer this to the alternative.”
Those who believe words are more real, in some arcane way, than our actual lives are insane. Those who use words to stir up fear and manipulate the lives of others are the problem and the threat. Those who attempt to live the words we profess to hold as our ideals are the hope and the heroes.
The faces of Jared Loughner and Christina Green stare out at us. The first is an emotional child, stunted by his own demons and self-hatred. The second is a bright promise that will now never realize her potential. Both faces have a kind of innocence – one twisted, the other pure. They are the children of this tragedy.
The challenge for the rest of us lies in choosing which one will be the face of our democracy as we seek to grow beyond this moment. The words we choose to use and the meaning we choose to honor will directly influence what our government is in the future.