Congressional staffers observe a moment of silence in honor of the Tucson shooting victims. Six people died and 14 were wounded, including Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Violence, like the weekend shooting in Arizona, is scary. Random violence, like the death of nine year-old Christina Green who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time this weekend is particularly terrifying.
In the face of such terror, we seek reasons and explanations. We want to know who and what is to blame, hoping that if we could figure that out and make it go away, we would be free of such horrors as the mass murder which occurred in a Tucson shopping center just 48 hours ago.
I appreciate that impulse, and even indulged it for a while, seeking to figure out who created the context which enabled and empowered the accused shooter, Jared Loughner. According to the AP, “Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik described the gunman as mentally unstable,” so accepting that we were not going to solve the problem of mental illness in the immediate future, I, like so many of us, wanted to find something we could address.
Like most people experiencing a moment of powerlessness and pain, I wanted something I could point to, something I could do something about. I found that “something” in Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs ads. I wanted to lash out about the ways in which the Tucson shooting and the critical wounding of Rep. Gabby Giffords was a natural outcome of portraying her district in Ms. Palin’s crosshairs.
Like many in the Jewish community, I even made quick comparisons to the rabbis whose teachings contributed to the context in which Yigal Amir, the assassin who murdered Yitchak Rabin, found justification for his actions. When leaders speak of violence, and use violent metaphors, actual violence is sure to follow. The problem is that even if that is so, shouting about it now will not actually help us.
The truth is, while there is a momentary burst of comfort in finding a cause, or contributing factor, in the shooting – particularly one which gives us the moral high ground, it doesn’t really help. For starters, the initial analyses which follow a tragedy are rarely correct – they tend to be more about reassuring ourselves of the goodness of our own position than anything else. Second, such analyses typically provides comfort only by making us feel bad about something else – in my case, Sarah Palin’s ads, which is small comfort indeed.
Instead of raging about what someone else did to contribute to the shock, sorrow and pain we are feeling, we need to look to ourselves. Trying times, in Jewish tradition, have always called for self-examination – in Hebrew it’s called Heshbon HaNefesh, or soul searching.
Soul searching is not about letting those who pull the triggers off the hook. It is not about letting those who contribute to the culture in which pulling triggers seems more reasonable, off the hook either. But it is about looking inward to address those things which really are within our control, rather than simply raging about those things which are not.
In the wake of the shooting which took six lives and wounded 14 more, including Rep. Giffords, we can do more than rage about what others did and continue to do to contribute to incivility of our political culture. We can begin to change that culture by changing ourselves – something which we all have the power to do. I think it’s what Gandhi meant when he taught people to be the change they wanted to see in the world.
In the wake of rising incivility, each of us can be a bit more civilized. Every one of us could speak a bit more gently, with a bit more appreciation of those with whom we come into contact. It’s amazing how healing that can be, as anyone who lived through the events of 9/11 in New York City can attest to.
Following the September 11th attacks, the people of New York City behaved better for weeks. There was a healing which came from deciding to treat each other better after others had attacked us so savagely. If this weekend’s shooting is as big a tragedy as people are saying, then let’s use the weeks following 9/11 as a model – let’s create the culture we want, even if it is in millions of “small” acts, rather than bemoan the absence of such a culture.
And if we still want to locate accountability, here’s another thing we can all do – one which really will change our political culture. We could start supporting politicians based not only on the policies they support, but based on how they advocate for those policies.
If changing the political culture is really what we want, it’s within our reach. As soon as being right about any given issue takes a back seat to how people behave when working on that issue, the culture will change.
When we hold our officials, from the left and the right, to that shared standard, we are being the change we want and making that change in the world. That too is about soul-searching. It’s about deciding if the quick hit of moral superiority which comes from being right will outstrip our desire for more durable decency.
It’s up to us, even in the midst of events which we often feel are beyond our control and out of our reach. We can search our souls and be the change we hope to see, and it’s amazing how healing that can be.