How Long? Reflections on Arizona and a Broken Nation

Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O LORD—how long?
~ Psalm 6:2-3, NRSV

Greg GarrettHow long, oh Lord?

How long will we have to sing this song?

Once again an angry and most probably deranged American with a gun (bomb/airplane/etc.) attacks fellow citizens who represent our government.

Who represent us.

It just happens that this time it is in Arizona, Ground Zero for prejudice for decades, home of heated talk radio and easy gun access, and a Mecca, as Sheriff Clarence Dupnik put it, "for the anger, the hatred, and the bigotry" that permeate our nation.

This time the victims include a moderate Democrat, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose husband is the only congressional spouse on military active duty, and who had warned us that the current state of inflamed political rhetoric and imagery in the U.S. might lead to violence.

This time the victims include a U.S. District Judge, John McCarthy Roll, on the way home from Mass, who had stopped to say hi to his friend Representative Giffords, and who in the past had required round-the-clock protection by federal marshals because of threats of violence against him.

This time the victims include a 9-year-old girl, Christina Taylor Green, just elected president of the student council at Mesa Verde Elementary School, who wanted to meet a real leader and learn from her how to serve.

There are others, too many others, although one would be too many. Each injury is tragic, each death heartbreaking.

And still, we are told, it is more important to preserve the so-called freedoms that may have led to this violence than to preserve each other.

We're told that our freedom to bear arms should be absolute, even though the Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol and mammoth ammo clip with which Jared Loughner is accused of having killed or wounded twenty people is ridiculously unnecessary for hunting, target shooting, or scaring off an intruder.

We're told that our freedom of discourse should be absolute, even when we are using what Paul Krugman called "elimination rhetoric," metaphorically or literally suggesting our opponents should be taken off the map.

I'm not here to score political points. This is way beyond politics. I am as disgusted with any Republicans who want to score points with angry constituents as I am with any loud-mouthed liberals who deny the humanity of their opponents.

This is way beyond politics. My heart is breaking—I sat with tears in my eyes through most of the CBS News the other night—and I join with The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, who offers a prayer that we can get past the "violent rhetoric of our time," which is ugly, cruel, reckless, and "has to end."

This is way beyond politics. It is not just about damning the damaging rhetoric of armed rebellion against a tyrannical government that rises from some, even though it hasn't been proven to have prompted this shooting. I agree with Eugene Robinson, who wrote in the Washington Post that Jared Loughner's probable mental illness "does not automatically absolve the politicians, partisan activists and professional loudmouths who spew apocalyptic anti-government rhetoric full of violent imagery."

Even granting the probability that Loughner, if guilty, is deranged—no sane person does such a thing—there are all sorts of deranged. Why didn't he walk inside Safeway and kill shoppers to protest capitalism and corporate profits? Why didn't he, enraged over pesticides or genetically modified food, shoot the produce manager and leave casualties among the lettuce and endive?

Why was his first and most important target a U.S. Congresswoman meeting with her constituents?

There is not—and may never be—"proof" that the current climate of hate, paranoia, and distrust caused this tragedy, but I have no doubt in my heart of hearts that at the very least it contributed to it.

We need to reconsider angry rhetoric across the board—our support of politicians who use it, and our patronage of media figures who become stars because of it. Disagreement, sure. Insult, even, although I don't like it. There's a difference between calling Bill Clinton an oversexed hillbilly or George Bush a chimp and wishing aloud that either were out of the picture.