By Lynn Paris
During the 24-hours after the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona, I was tempted―and it would have been so easy―to align with those who were blaming the toxic political climate, especially those extreme right-wing politicians, tea-partiers and media pundits, for creating a general atmosphere of fear and divisiveness in this country. I have certainly deplored, in this column, violent imagery and inflamed rhetoric, so in a perverse sort of way I guess it would have pleased me to be able to point a finger at those whose positions and methods for expressing them I so vehemently disagree with. Those death panel people . . . the crosshairs imagery from Sarah Palin . . . the anti-government, anti-Obama, anti-health care reform, anti-immigration, anti-DADT repeal , anti-everything people . . . all of them.
But I realized a couple of things. First, that the backlash would be a perpetuation of the very polarization I deplore, which has indeed proven to be the case. For every pundit or politician blaming the right, there are those on the right who are saying that the left is exploiting the tragedy for political advantage. Neither can be a good thing, and no one should feel good about exploiting the tragic deaths of six people and the shooting of 14 others. No one should be doing much other than praying for the complete recovery of Gabrielle Giffords and the others who were injured and grieving for the families of all who lost loved ones.
Second, I realized that we’ll probably never know what truly motivated Jared Loughner to attempt to assassinate Congresswoman Giffords or randomly shoot a group of innocent bystandanders. What HAS become clear is that he is a disturbed, mentally unbalanced young man with a deeply troubled past . . . a social outcast who was rejected from the Army, suspended from the college he was attending and who held almost indecipherable, but most definitely half-crazed paranoid ideas about government, politics and just about everything else. As Jon Stewart so thoughtfully put it, however, "I wouldn't blame (Loughner’s actions) on our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine...and that is coming from somebody who truly hates our political environment."
I also hate our political environment, or at least the bitter political environment that’s been the norm since . . . well, since Obama was elected. I have never felt so uneasy, so anxious, so uncomfortable in my skin and with my surroundings, knowing that healthy debate no longer seems possible, that people can no longer respectfully disagree with each other’s political views without the conversation becoming heated, even hateful. I don’t ever remember experiencing this, and I’ve been around a long time.
Still, I don’t want now, in the midst of a tragedy, to be about me adding to the noise.
On the other hand, I can’t help but agree with those who are attempting to use this tragic event as a “teachable moment.” Because if I’ve been feeling more anxious than ever before with the hostile, polarizing, even violent nature of our political rhetoric, perhaps it means that millions of others are feeling the same way. So, as we have been compelled to do so many times in the past in the midst of tragedy, we should take the time to reflect.
And our reflections must surely cause us all, left and right, moderate and conservative to at least contemplate the possibility that continuing to rachet up the hate and divisiveness could ultimately lead to a nation of anxious, fearful people, rather than the bold, adventurous innovators we have always been. Or, a nation of people so disgusted by politics that no one cares anymore . . . no one campaigns, no one votes; we all stay home.
I can do my small part. I can refrain from describing someone as an idiot when I find their views distasteful. Instead, I can set a tone of respectful disagreement in my columns. I can refrain from calling someone a right-wing nut job. Someone else could paint one less swastika. There could be one less reference to “tea-baggers” and one less demand to “take our country back.” Maybe if everyone did their part, however small . . . if everyone just took it down one notch, over time no one would even consider blaming our political environment for the actions of a delusional. most likely psychotic loner.