Meditating on the Arizona Shooting

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This weekend was an important weekend for me, committed wholly to reconnecting with one of my very best friends in the world, who I had not seen in close to two years. When we first saw the news of the Arizona shooting Sunday morning, I think we both kind of buried it so as not to let it interfere with my visit. Now, however, I am home and trying to resume blogging, and I simply cannot ignore it.

It should go without saying that my thoughts and hopes are with the families and loved ones of Rep. Giffords and all the others affected by this tragedy. I can only imagine dealing with such a traumatic experience, let alone with the public and mainstream media trying to peek inside your window. If I were in such a situation, the one thing I think I’d want most is privacy to grieve and work through the aftermath.

In that light, I’d like to use this post to meditate on how the rest of us react. I was beyond inspired by Jon Stewart’s special comment last night, so I would like to invite you to watch that first before I offer some comments of my own.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona Shootings Reaction
www.thedailyshow.com

“Crazy always seems to find a way.”

One of the quirks of the way the human brain evolved is that we are constantly searching to find meaning in everything that happens in life. It’s a primal survival instinct; the Homo erectus who thought the stick was a snake was more likely to survive than the one who thought the snake was a stick. Unsurprisingly, the more significant the stimulus, the more reactionary the impulse, and in modern day life, that leads us to jump to some conclusions that often make no intellectual sense whatsoever.

Mix in the fight-or-flight response triggered by trauma, and you have a recipe for chaos. I’m particularly glad that I was far removed from media (especially the Twittersphere) when the shooting took place. There were so many false reports that floated around in the ether. I hope some anthropology graduate student does a study about whether the Internet helps or hinders the spread of good information when national tragedies like this take place.

Naturally, the media’s first reaction is: Why did this happen? I can’t think of a scarier question in modern society.

We grossly overcompensate when we try to answer that question. Look at airport security. It’s complete security theatre, a pretty obvious sacrifice of liberty for an artificial sense of security. We jump to every conclusion and then try to cover every base. Ban this, limit that, cap this, restrict that, condemn this, reinforce that. Of course, we only really care when people of a certain race, socioeconomic status, or privileged position are victims, which is why airport security is over-the-top but bus security hardly exists. And it’s why the tragic deaths and injuries of a few particular people at one particular time bother us a lot more than the murders and tragedies we hear about every night on our local news.

If we really cared about gun violence, we’d act like it. If we really cared about dangerous political rhetoric, we’d act like it.

I was listening to NPR last evening and Michelle Norris was interviewing University of Arizona law professor Gabriel Chin about Arizona’s gun laws. It is appalling to realize just how easy it is to buy a gun. As long as you haven’t been committed or dishonorably discharged (sorry DADT victims!), you can buy a gun, and in Arizona, you can carry as many bullets in it as you want too! How naïve and primal are we in the year 2011 that we all need to own a gun and carry it around with us. Are we so uncivilized that we still care that it be easier to obtain guns than harder? What does that say about how much we trust each other? What does that say about how committed we are to a peaceful society? What does that say about how insecure so many people are about their own safety when we live in a society that is more comfortable than probably any society has ever been in the history of our species?

The conversation in the media has focused on the language and tactics of pundits. While we mustn’t conflate correlation with causation, I think it’s fair to say that such rhetoric is at least a symptom of the greater problem. The Tea Party has been riddled with language of violence from the outset—that’s not news. Is such rhetoric culpable? I think so. But is it responsible? Did Loughner shoot Rep. Giffords and the others in attendance  just because Sarah Palin had her in crosshairs? Probably not. We’re talking about a system and a culture here, and such black-and-white conclusions are neither realistic nor productive.

What they do tell us is a lot about our expectations for each other. As interconnected as we’ve gotten and as complex as our communications now are, we’re still just a group of people trying to coexist and live happy lives. If we’ve got people clinging to their guns, that should give us pause. If we’ve got people trying to obliterate each other (even as a political metaphor), that should give us pause. A peaceful society is supposed to become more sensitive to violence, not less. And while it’s true we are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the war at home that concerns me more.

And no, I’m not talking about video games.

In addition to Al Qaida, we’re also at war with drugs, poverty, and terrorism itself. And let us not forget that the past century has seen us at real war pretty constantly, whether it was a World War or two, a war in Vietnam or Korea, a Cold War, or a Desert Storm. We invite violence to be a part of our culture, and it comes from our political leaders themselves. And honestly, I thing this is just a modern-day extension of manifest destiny and Christian imperialism. People who think they know what is best get into power and then they try to force their change rather than invite change from within society itself. The result from any embrace of war, even something as seemingly noble as a war on a concept, is an acceptance of violence as part of life.

Can you imagine how much less gang violence there would be if drugs were legalized? It’s not going to happen; I get that, and maybe it shouldn’t. But with alcohol, we made the opposite decision. Prohibition led to incredible violence, so we legalized it and regulated it. Now we deal with the consequences of its use, which isn’t good either, I admit. But in a world where absolute ideals are unrealistic, are we better off treating alcohol abuse or continuing to kindle Prohibition-era violence? I think we have the less-awful of the two outcomes for alcohol, but so long as we’re still at “war” with the rest of drugs, the violence of that war will continue to be realized.

If we want to have a real conversation about the impact of political rhetoric, I think it demands we look at how uncivilly we treat each other. Looking at just the past two years, I think the obstinacy of Republicans in Congress and the narrow-minded reactionary cries of The Tea Party are far worse influences on our culture than any simulated violence in a video game. In fact, leadership across all parties and movements is being treated like war. We have leaders and parties who are so obsessed with power and agendas that they can’t actually be bothered to consider what might actually be best for their country and their constituents. Now that’s a dangerous message: care only about yourself and stop at nothing to block the opposition.

Some people can see through the politics; but others might just see simple motive. We can’t always count on everyone to appreciate the nuance. Any public message has to consider how the Loughners of the world are going to receive it.

That’s the scary thing about the Arizona shooting: we weren’t really caught off guard. It’s certainly tragic, but let’s be honest folks: we’re not really surprised that something like it happened. We’ve been primed for it. Loughner’s mental status and capacity for violence are, of course, exceptional, and while we can discuss culpability until the cows come home, he will always be the one to blame. But he did what he did in a society and a climate in which we can actually make sense of his actions, and that’s the discussion nobody wants to have.

Of course, as we deal with the grief of this latest American atrocity, there are gleams of hope. There is obviously the heroic story of Daniel Hernandez who probably helped save Rep. Giffords’ life. The LGBT and Latino communities are rightfully celebrating him; when communities are prejudged against (as both are), heroes are important opportunities to stand against stereotypes.

And as Jon Stewart pointed out, there are many stories about the various victims and the lives they’ve led that can and should be heard and cherished.

For me, there is something positive I’ve seen in the media that I think, for as subtle as it is, gives me reason to be optimistic. I think it says a lot about our society that we are most upset with the death of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Greene (such as Whoopi Goldberg on yesterday’s The View). There was a pastor who died, a federal judge, and of course we are concerned for the recovery of Congresswoman Giffords and the well-being of all affected by the shooting. But if we just step back and think about how people have reacted to this young girl’s death, I think we are reminded about the value of life. We might even mourn her more death in a different kind of way.

And that’s because we measure life by the potential to live it. In a society consumed with obsessions with money, fame, power, possessions, and the latest Jersey Shore or Real Housewives petty gossip, isn’t it nice to think about the fact that… life isn’t measured by what you have or what you have done, but always by what you can yet still do? The past is set in stone, but the future of our lives is always a wildcard of possibilities for living. The rest of us have to keep moving forward; we have to keep living our lives. If all of us assume just a tiny piece of the responsibility for living the life Christina will not now lead, I think we can make this world a much better place.

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