A fractured society is our responsibility

January 12, 2011

It’s glib and irresponsible to just blame conservative Republicans or Tea Party activists for the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and of so many other innocent people.  Indeed, the young man who committed this crime was clearly disturbed, and there’s no reason to believe that this crime was simply an expression of a conscious but zealous idealism.  And, certainly, none of Giffords critics intended or sought such action, or would have urged anybody to start shooting.

But to dismiss our responsibility is also glib and dangerous.  This tragic story exposes some disturbing flaws in American society.

* Medical care is often not available, mental health care is particularly hard for many to obtain, and those who seek it out are too often stigmatized.  Jared Loughner’s behavior was disturbing and strange enough that he was asked not to come to classes at the school he had been attending — and yet it’s not clear that he ever was offered the counseling and other support that he so clearly needed.

Whatever delusions led him to his violent outburst may not be our responsibility, but the fact that this festered in him, unchecked, even though students and faculty were afraid for their lives when in his presence, is clearly an American tragedy.

How many other people in our communities suffer with such anger, fear, distortions of reality, and emotional turmoil that they cannot live safely and comfortably — but are receiving no significant care or treatment?

* We’ve lost the ability to listen with respect to opinions we reject.  There’s a huge difference between acknowledging deep differences of opinion on such issues as health care, same gender marriage, abortion, and treatment of illegal immigrants, and labeling those who disagree with us as enemies whose wrong opinions must be fought at all cost.  This narrow-minded parochialism pervades all the ideological slices of American life, and it does not serve us well.

Of course, most of us do not take such views to the extreme, and murder our opponents.  Nor do we ask others to do this on our behalf.  But in confusing our judgment about views we abhor with lack of respect for those who hold such opinions, we become a less civil society.  This becomes most tragic when a disturbed individual, such as Jared Loughner, takes it upon himself to commit such an act of violence that none of us wanted, but that may appear to him as consistent with judgments he sees in so much of our mass media.

* Guns are much too available.  In particular, automatic weapons, that are not at all suited to self defense, hunting, or sport target shooting, are readily available along with hunting rifles and shotguns and small pistols.  Had Jared Loughner arrived at Representative Giffords’ event and started shouting obscenities, he might have been appropriately recognized as a disturbed individual — but would not have harmed others.  But, because he could so easily get his gun and a large quantity of ammunition, his outburst became a tragic scene of murder and maiming.

I’m well aware of the irony that Representative Giffords was among those supporting the permissive gun laws in Arizona.  And I don’t know to what extent this was her deep belief, or whether it was a political calculation to let her survive in the political culture of Arizona.  In any case, I believe her position was dangerously wrong, and it’s unfortunate that she and so many others have suffered this needless tragedy.

* Our media focuses more on the texture and minor details of news events, rather than on the larger issues that affect us all.  Listening to CNN shortly after the shootings, I heard numerous interviews with people who could tell us in detail how people reacted on hearing the shots, how the gunman was subdued, how deeply people were mourning, how little doctors could know about Representative Giffords’ possible recovery, and how strange the whole day had become.  But what I didn’t hear on that first day, and haven’t heard since, is a much more sophisticated look at American society, and how the level of discourse, the playing field of divergent ideas, and the forum in which policy is made have all shifted into a dangerously polarized state.

I don’t want to point fingers at anybody or at any one political group.  I don’t want to target or put in the crosshairs any ideological segment of our society.  Instead, I plead, and, yes, I do pray, that we can all create a more compassionate society that is more aware of our diversity, of our frailty, and of the dignity of all.

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