The blood of 19 Americans was spilled in Tucson, Arizona on the 8th day of 2011. This terrible tragedy is but the latest and most severe trauma to our democracy in a line of bloody wounds that has steadily drained it of civility. That we have condoned these attacks for so long is a testament to a pair of often contradictory ideas; our shared desire to uphold free expression, and our nation’s dysfunctional embrace of the immoral and unethical in the pursuit of “victory”.
The United States of America, we presumed, moved out of the realm of the “banana republic” almost 150 years ago. It would seem natural, after all, for a nation that lost better than 2% of its population to internal conflict, to learn from its mistakes. President Lincoln’s desire for healing, and President Johnson’s commitment to reconstruction without retribution, were explicit acknowledgements of the need for civility in government. The decades since have not been perfect, filled as they have been with violent flash-overs, the deceitful actions of the few, and the errors of imperfect people. But these decades have established the United States as a beacon in the world; a place where, despite the warts, diverse peoples could find peace and prosperity amidst a world of violence.
It is a romantic notion of our nation, but one I will continue to embrace. Shall we not cling to the tired old notions of America; this land of the free, this home of the brave? Our nation was not established by war, but rather delivered through the violence by hope, bravery, perseverance, and the faithful assistance of friends. The Civil War, fought less than a century after independence served to illustrate only the terrible cost of vanity and brash words. Principles, we learned in the Civil War, were never greater than the nation. Battlefields like Antietam and Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Shiloh, served to remind us that principles were a pale and painful justification for the spilling of blood.
Today, we are a nation with little understanding of the true cost of violence. We pay little heed to the true cost of rhetoric. We the people too often stand and challenge, then step back to allow others the “glory” of defending our principles. Our politics, left and right, has indulged in angry rhetoric and violent outbursts. The 1960’s found us trading actions, aggressively falling towards the bloody quid pro quo we so blithely assume is native to the Middle East. Today we stumble on the edge of a real abyss; we can quickly fall from “greatest nation on Earth” to just another failed empire. We need to find our way again, as a nation, and move with purpose. That purpose is now clouded by feelings of hate and vengeance.
When acts of violence happen, the aftermath is naturally awash with recrimination, confusion, and anger. Today, I witnessed hundreds of normally docile people, most committed to intellectual pursuits, acting out in a rage I find difficult to communicate. Liberals and conservatives, that vocal 40% that live on the wings of American politics, have been shouting over the heads of the American middle for some time now. Conservatives have become very good at whipping up real anger in their electorate, but they have been helped by liberals whose primary talent (it seems) lay in calling conservatives names. Today, when the anger most expressed by the conservative movement was made manifest, the roar of liberal name-calling rose to a crescendo. The vitriol pulsating through the social networks was vile and frightening.
As a liberal, I understand the anger. I have listened to the rhetoric of conservative politicians and pundits for several years with a growing anger and unease. I have watched as state legislatures have considered articles of secession, battled the federal government as an outside entity, and openly questioned its legitimacy. I have seen the baseless fantasies of conservative agitators declared reality by media fiat. And today, I saw a disturbed young man, awash in a confused jumble of anti-government conspiracy theories, attempt to assassinate a U.S. Representative. This is not the first instance of violence with a reasonable linkage to the worst of the right’s rhetoric, and the explosion of anger from the left was, I think, inevitable.
We liberals have long been angered by the lack of consistency on the part of the right. This event challenges our own notions of consistency. It is difficult to argue that this is a terrorist action when many liberals argued that the Ft. Hood shooting was not. The Rational Middle believes that both incidents fit the definition. It is tragedy added to tragedy that we the people can’t fully understand these incidents, and learn from them, because we are too busy trying to own the labeling rights to them. If Republicans were able to brand the Ft. Hood shooter a terrorist, it would make President Obama look weak on terrorism. If Democrats are able to brand this assassination attempt a terrorist act, then right wing politics could be linked with terrorism. In this battle over branding, violence and those committed to its glorification, are the only victors.
We liberals have long been angered by the lack of real policy debates coming from the right. The constituent anger over health care reform didn’t exist because people were upset about the floor on medical loss ratios forced on insurance companies, they were terrified and angry about the imagined euthanasia cost controls of the nonexistent Death Panels. The constituent anger over the stimulus package didn’t exist because people were angry about the structure of infrastructure spending, they were furious about fanciful imaginings of a Marxist takeover. But the simple fact of this mess is that, while this shooter may have targeted Rep. Gabby Giffords because of her votes, that knowledge does nothing to help us prevent this nonsense from happening again.
What the angry outburst wasn’t was productive. Attacking Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, Jesse Kelly, or Glenn Beck for this atrocity misses the relevant point. It is the coarsening of our culture and embrace of ignorance that lie at the center of this tragedy. At the very least, the tone and tenor of attacks on the above individuals lends credibility to the noise machine the attacks are purported to condemn. We are all of us responsible for the tone and purpose of our communication, but while we may seek to call out the worst of those with whom we disagree, we must be reminded that someone has to be strong enough to stand down from the conflict. Someone has to be brave enough to turn the other cheek. Someone has to have the resolve to be consistent with their principles in the face of tragedy. I will leave it to the reader to decide which individuals are likely to meet these challenges.
We the people, from the founding of our nation, through the bloodshed of civil war, and the strife of these modern times, have succeeded in forming a more perfect union. More perfect indeed, but still far from perfection. Within majority rule, there can be no question of bitterness on the part of the minority. Within a democracy, there can be no question of, as Sharon Angle put it, Second Amendment remedies as antidote for that bitterness. Laws will be passed, laws that will never meet with universal acceptance. It is up to us, the citizens of this republic, to work within its prescribed machinery for redress of our grievances. We will almost never get the perfect answer. The extent to which we rise above our disagreements, accept our setbacks with grace, and embrace our victories with dignity, will define us as a people. And as blood feeds the machinery of our bodies, so to does civility feed the machinery of our democracy. On the 9th day of 2011, this nation will move forward from the tragedy in Tucson. The civility we show each other will define our future.
The Rational Middle is listening…