Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gunfire and Rhetoric

Most of us are still reeling from the terrible massacre perpetrated by an obviously disturbed man in a shopping mall in Arizona in which a federal judge and a nine year old girl are among those killed and a congresswoman is fighting for her life in an Arizona hospital. No words are adequate to the magnitude of such a crime- in which people attending a public forum were targeted. The horrendous assault on human life is compounded by the assault on the very fabric of our democratic values in what is no less than an act of terrorism.

Also disturbing, though perhaps a necessary part of the process of dealing with this terrible deed, have been the accusations hurled from all sides of the political spectrum. These range from the patently absurd insistence from the always over-the-top Glenn Beck that the shooter was a liberal (the evidence points to disjointed but decidedly right wing political views), to the insistence by voices on the left that Sarah Palin, with her target-studded political map is directly responsible for this man's heinous acts, to the words of Senator Kyl who seems to be insisting that this act was solely a product of the shooters (obviously) disturbed state of mind.

Beck's predictably ridiculous comments notwithstanding, I think it is clear that this was a disturbed individual, but it is equally important to pay heed to the words of the Sheriff of Pima County, Arizona who pointed out that the atmosphere of overheated and hateful rhetoric that has come to characterize our politics, especially on the right, cannot be discounted when we look at the rise in acts of violence directed at people whose views or whose religion, sexual orientation or immigration status have made them targets of the right. After the plans for Park 51 for example, the Muslim community center planned in downtown NY City were announced for example, the vitriol against Muslim Americans reached a fever pitch with one self-proclaimed Christian pastor even threatening to hold a Qu'ran burning ceremony. Vandalism against mosques spiked and hate crimes against Muslims and Muslim institutions did as well. Members of a Unitarian congregation in Tennessee were gunned down a year ago by a man whose hatred of "liberals" was, in his own words, fanned by the rhetoric of right wing pundits and politicians and let's face it, putting targets on people may not rise to the level of an exhortation to kill them, but the violence of that image is impossible to ignore. It is wrong to make Sarah Palin responsible for what this young man did, but it is right to point out that we don't need and we are not well served by violent images and rhetoric in our political discourse. At best, they polarize us as a people and demonize our fellow Americans, without whose opposing views democracy is not possible. At worse, they are provide a justification for those who are already inclined to violence.

If the left is better, they are only a little better, possibly because they are slightly less enamored of their firearms. Self-righteous finger-pointing is not constructive and it belies the obvious: that all of us, of all political stripes are responsible for toning down the self-righteousness and the hate speech. Disturbed people don't need us egging them on, even if that is not what we intend to do, but more to the point, hate speech has no place in a democracy. The people we disagree with are our neighbors and our friends and they are trying to do what we are trying to do, to make the country a better place. A democracy requires us to be able to disagree in an enthusiastic but civil manner. We need to stop threatening each other, stop looking down our noses at each other and stop calling each other names. As people of faith, we have a special responsibility here. We need to lead on this and insist on civil, nay, compassionate discourse, spirited but loving debate and we need to remember ourselves as we remind our flocks that as Dr Martin Luther King Jr, said,"... the ends are inherent in the means." You can be right and still be wrong if you can't remember that the person you are arguing with is a human being like you. Enough dead public servants, enough dead children, enough with the hate speech. Mistakes have been made all around- let us honor the victims of this tragedy with our resolve to be more civil and more reverent for the rights as well as the lives of our neighbors.