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Monday, January 10, 2011

A few words before the moment of silence

Posted By on Mon, Jan 10, 2011 at 11:33 AM

This space joins with every American in lamenting this weekend's horrific shootings in Tucson. A moment of silence is scheduled for 11 a.m. this morning. I hope readers of this blog will join me in honoring it. 

But let's get this out of the way right up front. 

Yes, there are connections between this depraved crime and the right-wing rhetoric about "Second Amendment remedies." But I don't think you can pin this awful act on Sarah Palin's election map, or any other right-wing rhetoric.

From all appearences, the accused shooter was a disease looking for a symptom. Much of his rhetoric sounds as though it was cribbed from Glenn Beck's rantings. But history suggests it could just as easily have been taking from the talking points of those of us on the left. Or, for that matter, from the collected works of Jerry Seinfeld.

And the vast majority of right-wing "lock-and-load" rhetoric has always struck me as political Viagara. It's mostly marketed toward aging white males who are looking for a spark to help them get excited. 

And yet. Tragedies like this ought to make us rethink that sort of rhetoric anyway.

While the shooting may not be the RESULT of contemporary right-wing rhetoric, it still offers a REFLECTION of it. Put simply: This is how the world would be if people took that sort of talk seriously.

And for those who engage in that sort of talk, the question is: If you don't want your rhetoric taken seriously, why are you using it? Why are you espousing Second Amendment solutions for election setbacks at all? 

Look: We've probably all had this experience, if only in our private lives. You conceive a disdain or hatred for someone -- a rival in the workplace, a neighbor who drives you crazy, a politician whose views you find odious -- and indulge yourself in a vicious resentment. Maybe you keep those feelings to yourself, maybe you share it with friends, maybe you make scandalous sotto voce remarks at backyard barbecues. 

In any case, it feels good to let yourself experience, and express, that sort of anger. It feels good, as Kurt Vonnegut once put it, to indulge that part of us that wants to hate without limit -- to feel we can hate with God on our side.

But then, tragedy befalls that person. And -- assuming that neither you nor your enemy are monstrous psychopaths -- you feel a strange guilt for your previous animosity. Even if your enemy has earned your enmity ... even if you logically know your hatred has no part in their misfortune ... a part of you feels shamed by your previous hatred.

If you've felt that way, there's probably a reason for it. It may not have occurred to you before, but if you're honest, at this moment you may realize how much of your earlier hatred was based on a disregard for your enemy's shared humanity. In your anger and resentment, you forgot that they were vulnerable human beings as well, subject to the same hardships, the same tragedies, the same vicissitudes as you. You remember that the world really CAN deal out the kind of hardship you secretly have wished. And you realize that wishing that such hardship on another -- even if you didn't really mean it -- makes you a villain as well, in however small a way. 

"We are murdered each day, and each day we commit murder." So wrote Wolfgang Borchert, whose searing moral vision was formed as a conscript, fighting for Germany in the Second World War. But such a damning indictment is never popular -- even among the noisy Christians who should be among the first to recognize its morality as their own. 

It would be reassuring to think that the deaths in Tucson would lead to some sea-change in political rhetoric. But whatever change there is will likely turn with the tide.

Maybe a Senator or two will tone down the rhetoric. Maybe a vote on healthcare repeal will be delayed by as much as a month. But there are too many people who earn their living from sowing ignorance and fear. The good people at FOX News surely know that, if Glenn Beck became Charlie Rose, he'd lose most of his audience. For millions of Americans, this is the media they want -- the media they deserve.

And believe it: These people are already halfway toward convincing themselves that they are victims too. It will take only the faintest whisper about gun control, or the need for political commentators to think twice before commenting ... and among some of our neighbors, visions of jackbooted thugs will resurface. And the wellspring of fear and anger will begin bubbling again.

So at 11 a.m., let's not just remember those who have been lost. Let's also remember those who still are. 

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