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What Scares Me About The Arizona Shooting

photo: lensfodder via Flickr

We may never know why Jared Loughner did what he did. Perhaps Sheriff Dupnik is right, that he was an unstable person pushed over the edge by political hate speech. Perhaps Senator Kyl is right, that he was just unstable, and there’s nothing more to it. Perhaps Sarah Palin and the Tea Party anger she cultivates are to blame. Perhaps Loughner’s family and friends are to blame. Perhaps Arizona’s lenient gun laws are to blame. Perhaps no one but Loughner and his mental illness are to blame.

But the actual reasons for Saturday’s shootings are irrelevant for all of us who aren’t directly affected. For our nation as a whole, it doesn’t matter why Loughner made the decision to open fire on a US Congresswoman and the crowd gathered to hear her speak. What matters is the reaction that the shooting has sparked and will continue to spark.

Almost instantly, speculation and finger-pointing shot across the Internet. The left blamed the right and the not-so-veiled rhetoric of the Tea Party. The right defended itself, saying that both sides are guilty of hateful speech. Within hours of the shooting, I found myself engaged in a heated debate with a conservative friend about who to blame for the shooting – even though we had no evidence other than the fact that it was a Democratic representative who was attacked.

It’s scary that we instantly took this shooting as a sign that our nation’s political discourse is out of control. It’s scary that we didn’t even wait for evidence before we started condemning our political opponents. That’s not to say that there isn’t blame to go around – I do happen to believe that Loughner was influenced in some way by our overheated political climate, and that the hard right bears the brunt of the responsibility for that climate. . . .

It’s scary because we as a nation, liberals and conservatives alike, are so caught up in our stone-throwing, that we can’t even call a truce for a few hours in the face of tragedy – first, to make sure we have the facts straight, and second, to pull together as a people and understand that such an event can be a chance to heal our divisions or to rip them even further apart. The way I responded on Saturday, as did many of us, has only served to tear at our nation’s already tattered fabric. Mea culpa.

But the way many of us reacted by openly attacking our political opponents is not what scares me the most. What scares me the most is what is not in the public discourse. It’s what is being said behind closed doors in some places, only for certain ears to hear. And it’s what is being thought in some minds and not vocalized at all.

From the media and from public figures, we are hearing nothing but shock and outrage. But how many people are privately saying, “Good, it’s about time somebody had the guts to do it.” How many people, regardless of what they believe about Loughner’s motives, are thinking that maybe this event is a good thing, that something like this was necessary to get Congress in line – or even worse, to inspire others to similar acts of terror.

Our nation has a long and terrible history of under-the-surface hate and violence, from the Ku Klux Klan to extremist militia groups to the type of bigots that murdered Matthew Shepard. What the culture as a whole might consider common decency and political correctness masks strong undercurrents of prejudice and hate – hate that can easily surface and explode into violence when the political and cultural atmosphere gets highly charged. This has happened far too many times over the years.

What really scares me, then, has nothing to do with the actual reasons Loughner shot all those people. Like I said, that’s irrelevant in a national sense. It’s that we have been so quick to further divide ourselves, that we’ve been so quick to charge up even more this already super-charged climate, and that there are others out there who are quietly watching and applauding and being pushed over the edge themselves. 

We’ve seen them carrying their guns and waving their signs at political rallies. We’ve heard them call for “revolution” and “watering of the tree of liberty.” We know that they are out there, just as full of anger and hate as they were before last Saturday. What, if anything, can be done to prevent Saturday’s tragedy from becoming somebody’s elses call to action?

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Jim Moss

Jim Moss

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