What I want to say about the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Author’s note: The awful shooting in Tucson this weekend is something that has affected me deeply; I have ties to the city. This post is a bit outside the normal realm of what I prefer to discuss here, but it is so important to me that I am making an exception to talk about it. Also, as I find relevant online materials, I’m adding hyperlinks to the text.

There are many, many things I’ve never wanted to learn: what it means to be afraid, what it means to live in a world at war, what it means to face deadly religious, cultural, or ethnic persecution, what it means to starve or be without a home, or what it would mean to experience my sister’s seizures or her blindness or, um, her entire reality. (Have I mentioned that she’s the braver of the two of us?) I’ve been so glad to live now, with near magical wonders of technology, safe and clothed and fed, to know that my family and friends are the same, that my sister is alive and happy despite her medical challenges, and to get to do what I love as a profession.

I was thinking about this last week, when I heard part of the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC – letting younger callers ask questions of “baby boomers” who called in. One baby boomer caller suggested that the spate of political assassinations (and riots) during the 1960s was a turning point, after which their idealism turned in, focused locally rather than globally. The boomers were the people in power during the wealth stratification which occurred during my lifetime, after the triumphs of social justice and technological advancement of the 1960s and 1970s, so listening to this, I was saddened to think of the loss of a few great leaders’ deaths as shattering the hopes of a generation. Despite the fact that I was a (young) adult when terrorists attacked my country in 2001, I wondered: how could that hopelessness set in? Now, I feel I am too close to knowing the answer, facing a lesson I never wanted to learn: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head Saturday while meeting with constituents, several of whom were also shot.

I think many of us are struggling to attach meaning here, or to get a handle on what happened. Almost immediately, the conversation focused on the current hyperbole-driven climate of the news media and our political infrastructure, and how the internet affects this (I appreciated Matt Bai in the New York Times, and James Fallows in The Atlantic, which I got from Kate Harding, and Paul Krugman in the NY Times). We do not know, at the time that I type this, what motivations drove the suspect to bring a gun to this event, to open fire, leaving at least six people dead and another 14 injured. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that the culture of hyperbole makes it harder for any of us who are struggling with powerful emotions, isolation, marginal mental health, or oppressive societal forces (and more) to stay sane and healthy, that regardless of some details of the suspect’s life, if we permeate the news with artificially inflated conflict, and conflate news and opinion, and value profit over information, even the healthiest, smartest, most thoughtful of us may be hard-pressed to dig the signal out of the noise and not give in to despair or confusion. And for those of us whom the confusion claims, it’s all too easy to hurt ourselves and others.

I am surprised by some of my emotions: I am upset that I have seen no mention of the Rally to Restore Sanity. I know that some of my fellow liberals came away from the rally disappointed that it had not been a more strictly liberal event, but I disagreed with them. I’d love to have a major liberal demonstration, sure, but I attended the rally because I wanted to be seen as a citizen who was publicly, vocally opposed to the ever-escalating sensationalization of the news media. I’m glad that prominent media figures stood up to say that it needed to end. I’m devastated that not enough people heard that message until shots rang out in Tucson, and people died. I’m worried that not enough people have heard it yet.

I am surprised by some of my emotions: today, I don’t want this event to be about politics, but about the people affected. I know this is a foolish hope, as the tragedy can and does have meaning well beyond those lives, and the realities of politics are not something we can simply shut off and leave outside while we mourn. But I want people to remember that there are multiple families who have lost loved ones, who are sitting in hospital waiting rooms. And I want people to remember that there are always families struggling with the effects of violence and accident, that waiting rooms are too full of worried loved ones, experiencing tragedies that are also consequences of some of these larger societal forces. Because of my sister’s epilepsy and severe Salmonella infection, I have spent time in ER and ICU waiting rooms and in ICU rooms and other wards; I’ve spent time in the ER for an injury of my own. I don’t want anyone else to have to experience that.

Tonight, the families of the 20 victims are facing a potentially tough recovery from emotional and physical injuries. The people of southern Arizona have been shocked by this violence, and the nation is stunned. My heart goes out to everyone in Tucson, everyone connected to Tucson, and I wish us all time and space to grieve and heal, and I wish a rapid, full recovery to the injured, especially Rep. Giffords.

My prayer – if that’s the right thing to call this – is that we can respond to this devastating event not with more fear, not with insularity masquerading as community cohesion, but with the courage to stand together as an inclusive community, as a group of people who don’t necessarily agree with or like each other but who can face our fears together and work to build our future together anyways. In that work, let the memories of those lost and the recovery of those injured inspire us, to be lights in our lives instead of reasons to let the darkness in.

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