January 15, 2011
Life’s not fair. We cannot get around that fact and last Saturday, in Tucson, we saw this bitter truth play out once again when a young man with a fractured mind gunned down nineteen people who had collected with others outside a Safeway store to meet with their congresswoman . Six of those nineteen – a nine-year-old girl, among them – died of the injuries he inflicted. Hundreds of people, the survivors, themselves, as well as families and friends of the injured and dead will carry a new, painful scar through life while millions of Americans ask each other, “Why did this happen, again?”
There was, of course, no dearth of quick (and often shallow) answers. “It’s those conservative hate mongers with their violent language.” “The guy was a liberal pothead. Look, his favorite books were Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifest, for crying out loud.” “It’s a government conspiracy to take away our _______ (insert your favorite – guns, free speech, tomato sauce, whatever) from us.” Yet, for all the political hate speech around, I – a liberal democrat – walk around my neighborhood unafraid that some conservative republican neighbor, inspired by the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, will do me in. I’m also sure my conservative republican neighbors conduct their daily business without fear that Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow will inspire me, the liberal democrat, to violence against them. And guns, free speech, tomato sauce (and whatever) are all still available in the United States despite our government’s poorly thought out attempts to limit some of these things whenever terrible events happen.
Thoughtful questions were also asked, as they eventually are in tragedies like this. Can we do a better job of detecting and treating that small fraction of the mentally ill who commit violent acts without infringing on the rights of the mentally ill who will never commit them? Could we do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of felons and the violent mentally ill without infringing on the right of the people to keep and bear arms? Might we find a way to take the profit out of violent, hateful political and religious speech without limiting the necessary and guaranteed rights of both free speech and religion? How do we limit that inherent unfairness of life without also limiting our abilities to persevere in spite of it? And, should we try?
Words do have consequences. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t spend so much time, energy and money putting our own words out there and parsing the words of others. Still, we have a very fragile understanding of the exact relationship between words and action and we rightly fear quick assumptions and actions – especially by the government – based on those assumptions.
We are all quick to take responsibility for those words we hope have inspired good or heroic action, but slow to accept that same responsibility for words we fear might have inspired actions like that of the Tucson gunman. Words also have the power to bring us together as that congregate we, the people, or drive us apart in paranoid fear of “the other” in ways that further or limit our ability to live with each other in a free, yet respectful manner. As a writer who loves words, I know of no remedy for that power and its consequences other than for each of us to take responsibility for our own words, keeping in mind both their power and the fragility of our understanding about their relationship to action.
Beyond that, I have no more answers to the “why” of such tragedies or how best to address them than you do. I wish I did.
In looking back at this week, though, I was touched by the instinct of the victims who tried to shelter their loved ones from the bullets, impressed with the heroism of ordinary people who hurried into the fray to take down the gunman and care for the wounded and dying until police and paramedics arrived. I felt comforted in my own grief over this senseless act– as I always do in such tragedies – by the rush of sympathy and grief from people around the nation and across the usual divides, as they sought ways to support and comfort the victims and their families.
It’s easy, in our need to find reasons and assign blame, to dismiss this urge to comfort – especially toward people we don’t really know – as shallow, perhaps even hypocritical. I don’t see it that way. I see in it both the recognition that, no matter how we work to change things, life is and will always be unfair and an affirmation that, in spite of this unfairness, we find meaning in our mutual existence by giving to and taking strength from one another as we move on. In the end, that is the only lasting answer I can find to the question of, “Why?”