I say this because Arizona is not the problem. We the people are the problem.
That is, we Americans who think it is cool to engage in rhetoric, political or otherwise, that encourages division, ugliness, hatred, and violence, directly or indirectly.
Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed this madness via certain television networks, tv and radio talk shows, the internet, and various rallies and protests: a climate of hatred and, yes, violence, which has been boiling, with a quickness, in our America.
This is not about left versus right political philosophies, nor Democrats versus Republicans, or progressives versus Tea Party followers, or about the wackness of Arizona, a state that once, aided by one of its senators, John McCain, refused to celebrate the Dr. King holiday after it was made a federal law (to be fair, Mr. McCain eventually backed away from that position).
Not per se.
But it is about any of us who are so politically, emotionally, and spiritually immature that the only way we know how to participate in dialogue on any issue is to scream, curse, or otherwise threaten and dehumanize each other. Or move to murder each other. Quite literally.
Add to this cruel reality show the new world order our technological revolution has birthed in the form of the social networks, and you suddenly have these spaces where an angry and misguided individual or groups of angry and misguided people can post the most anti-social pronouncements imaginable, grow an audience, and prepare, right in front of our very eyes, to unleash their rage on unsuspecting and innocent persons.
So, yes, it pains me that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at point-blank range by 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona. Painful, too, that 19 others were wounded and 6 are dead, including John M. Roll, the chief judge for the United States District Court for Arizona, and a 9-year-old girl named Christina Green.
According to Christina’s mother Roxanna Green, mother and daughter were there at that Tucson, Arizona area Safeway parking lot because her daughter was interested in government and wanted to learn how to give back to the community. A little girl full of life’s possibilities blown away by a young man mentally unstable enough to believe he could change the course of history, with a gun I am sure he was able to purchase rather easily.
As a result there will be no giving back for little Christina ever again because no one can give that child another breath. But what we can do is heed the words of Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff at a press conference:
“The anger, the hatred, the, uh, bigotry that goes on in this country, is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona has sort of become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Well, yes, indeed, when you review, say, the horrible anti-immigration sentiments there. Plus the fact that the late Judge Roll had to accept protection from the Federal Marshals Service in 2009. This was in response to his allowing to proceed a civil rights lawsuit by a group of Mexicans against an Arizona rancher who thought it his right to stop people at gunpoint as they crossed his land, then turn them over to the Border Patrol.
Regardless of where you may fall on the issue of immigration, pointing guns at other human beings, or outright shooting them (which has occurred often in those parts), is simply not the way. Nor is threatening the life of a federal judge because you do not agree with his decision. Says that we are not quite the fair and egalitarian civilization we claim to be, at best. Says some of us are barbaric, at worst.
Beyond Arizona, nor is it acceptable for the flames of anger and venom to be blown, mightily, at those Summer 2009 townhall meetings on the pending healthcare legislation.
Nor has it been acceptable the barely masked threats against President Barack Obama, a constant stream of verbal aggression so nasty that you wonder if someone wants to do total harm to his presidency, just because—
Nor is it acceptable for Sarah Palin’s website to not merely list 20 vulnerable Democrats to target in 2010, but to have the picture of a gun crosshair displayed for each of the 20, including Congresswoman Giffords.
Nor is it acceptable for The Tea Party to condemn the Tucson shooting (while scrambling fast to state Jared Lee Loughner is not one of them) but still not have the moral courage, nor outrage, to condemn, once and for all, its own oratory, these many months of its movement, that dance right at the doorstep of political anarchy and, yes, violence.
For when we use the words and images of violence, be we on the left or those of us on the right, we invite violence right into our lives, even if it is a moderate Congressional member simply hosting an outdoor gathering to meet her voters on a weekend trip back to her district. Because once you’ve fostered, egged on, and actually kick-started a violent atmosphere and a violent mindset, there is no sacred ground in our America, and you will not be free from violence and tragedies, be it in the ghettos or in the suburbs.
And as long as there is an incredible addiction to violence in America—ranging from averting our eyes from the regular practice of domestic violence against women to our acquiescence in unnecessary wars overseas, to our love affair with violent blockbuster films and video games, to this twisted need to define our culture (especially we men and boys) through the barrel of a gun, you come to the clear-eyed conclusion that violence, as one 1960s activist put it matter of factly, is as American as apple pie.
But it does not have to be. But only if we Americans are collectively willing to be morally responsible enough, and mature enough, to engage in conversations that do not seek to hurt or destroy others, just because you may not like them or their views. In our American journey we’ve witnessed violence against Native Americans, Blacks, poor and ethnic Whites, women and girls, the handicapped and the disabled, gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, Latino and Asian immigrants, Arabs and Muslims, Jews (it is not lost on me that Representative Giffords is the first Jewish Congressional member from the state of Arizona), and more members of the human family than we could list in this blog.
It is seemingly the preferred way, to resort to violence when we believe everything else has failed, when we feel alienated, angry, and confused, as evidenced by Jared Lee Loughner’s internet postings (as was the case with the Columbine shooters in Colorado back in the day). Or when we feel our way of life, our way of viewing the world, is threatened.
For example, when I hear some Americans say they want their country back, that they want things the way they once were, I as an African American often wonder, Want your country back for whom? And, The way things once were for whom? If we followed that logic I would be, say, my long-dead grandfather: not able to look White males or females in the eyes for fear of violent punishment; having to jump off the curb if a White person were walking in my direction; and my life reduced to work in someone else’s cotton or tobacco field, or as a source of cheap, service-oriented labor, and my life permanently imprisoned by poverty and no hope whatsoever. If that or any other brand of social injustice is not a form of violence, then I do not know what it is.
So part of this unraveling of violence in our society, too, has to do with all of us, of every race and culture and gender and faith and class and sexual orientation, having the chutzpah to talk shop about our country, mountaintops of mistakes included, both past and present. In other words, in order for us to have a future not completely defined by violence, anger, and finger-pointing, I am essentially calling for a very necessary kind of soul-searching that America needs to do before what happened to Congresswoman Giffords becomes as routine as the too-many-to-count assassinations and assassination attempts we witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s.
In our America—
Kevin Powell is an activist, writer, and public speaker. He is the author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (Soft Skull). He is based in Brooklyn, New York, and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org