Sunday, January 9, 2011

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

Do not speak words that can create division and hatred.... Words have the power to create trust and happiness, or they can create misunderstanding and hatred and even lead to murder and war. Please use words with the greatest care. (Thich Nhat Hhan)

I am still reeling from news of the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that left six dead. All the facts are not yet known, and may never be. In a twenty-four hour news cycle the temptation to play the blame game is very great. So too, the temptation to try to leap in and say it all; to draw definitive lessons.

For my own part, I am aware of many different and conflicting emotions, including anger and profound sadness. For now, at least, I think it is best to continue to pray for Congresswoman Giffords and her family and for the families who lost loved ones. And we should not forget the family of the shooter(s?) Clearly the young man who is in custody suffers from mental illness and clearly his family must be going through hell right now too. Clearly there were signs along the way; but for whatever reasons he could not or would not get the help he needed.

I do want to at least point toward a potential learning/insight. I realize that anecdotes are not the same as "evidence." But I had an experience, not too long after 9/11, with a mentally ill young man who got in trouble with the law because he believed that some "terrorists" were trying to poison a local reservoir. He tried to beat them up in order to stop them. He was confused of course; they were not terrorists at all. But if you remember the hype and security warnings in those months after 9/11 especially, when we seemed to be always on "red" or "orange" alert, then it is not too difficult to imagine how this social anxiety helped to trigger that response in his own mind. I can't "prove" cause and effect there. But I know he was not a bad person; just a sadly confused one.

Anecdotes are not evidence, and it may be impossible to find a cause and effect relationship for why 22-year-old Jared Loughner acted as he did in trying to take the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. To say that his political philosophy was "confused" seems to be pretty charitable. My experience and intuition suggest to me, however, that it is not a very great leap to see that the Pima County Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, is onto something and deserves to be heard. Sheriff Dupnik issued a plea for sanity, and warned media pundits that their inflammatory speech is out of control. Here is what he said:
I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people-how they are-how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government—the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capitol. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

I would simply say it this way: our words matter. As a preacher I think about this on a regular basis. Our words can invite reflection or incite violence. Yes, we have a right to "free speech." And yes, we are all entitled to our opinions. But when we falsely yell "fire" in a crowded movie theater and people get killed trampling each other on the way out, our hands are not clean. Words really do matter.

And so it is incumbent upon us to renew our commitment to practice speech that respects political, religious, economic and cultural differences of opinion, even when our disagreements are passionate. There is nothing wrong with honest disagreement. But vilification of the other, outright lies, hostility and demonization and scapegoating have consequences. We cannot throw gasoline on the fires and then feign innocence when people get burned. Perhaps this horrific event can serve as a deadly reminder to all of us to take it down a notch.

Lives depend on it.

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