Sunday, January 09, 2011


I hope you all had the opportunity to watch Meet the Press today, and specifically the roundtable discussion in which Democratic and Republican Congresspeople spoke about yesterday’s shootings in Tucson. That roundtable ended with a simple question by the moderator to one of the Congresspeople: “Was this a moment?” The answer she gave was a resounding yes. Indeed, that is the politically-correct response. Whenever some tragedy befalls us, whether it’s an environmental disaster, an economic meltdown, an episode of mass-murder, or the recognition of a pointless war, our nation’s leaders and talking heads wax eloquent about the lessons we’ll learn and the changes we’ll make.

But tell me, are you really impressed with our track record in learning from tragedies? Have we fixed our war-mongering problem after Vietnam? Our gun fetish after Columbine? Has the Great Depression taught us to permanently protect our working class? Has our recognition of climate change caused us to radically transform our addiction to fossil fuels? Don’t think too hard about those questions, folks. They are all rhetorical. And that is why if I were asked “Was this a moment?” I’d give a more nuanced answer: “Well … yes, a moment … just a moment. Before long, we’ll be back to normal.” It’s sad to say that, but I’m not in a sugar coating kind of mood.

The fact is that what happened in Tucson ought to be a teachable moment, but I suspect it won’t, and the reasons why were on display in Meet the Press. One Democratic Congressman brought up perhaps the most obvious point, that we need to take a look at the laws that permit people like the assailant to obtain semi-automatic weapons. But two of his Republican colleagues were quick to respond that the problem is not with guns but with the people who abuse them. One pointed out if that someone in attendance had a similar gun, maybe he could have stopped the bloodshed. And another suggested that there are strict gun laws in Washington D.C. and no shortage of killings, so why would we think stricter gun laws are the answer?

The simple reality is that as long as we have urban communities in America that are structurally impoverished, we will have no shortage of killings, regardless of the gun laws. But why make it easy to obtain attack weapons? Frankly, it’s nothing short of bizarre that we live in a nation where a young punk cannot legally obtain a joint of marijuana, but he can legally acquire the means to fire dozens of bullets. As for the idea that we need to arm all the good people in order to deter the bad ones, that has some paucity of resonance if you’re arming people with old fashioned handguns, but is there really need to arm all the citizenry with weapons that fire dozens of rounds?

It’s a laughable point. And yet nobody on Meet the Press wanted to call out the Congressmen on the issue. Indeed, the gun control lobby is about as weak in this nation as the lobby to protect orangutans or gorillas. Those species of ape aren’t quite extinct yet, but politicians whose pet issue is to fight the proliferation of guns have probably all left Capital Hill. Face it: the gun lovers have won the battle. And while these folks do not all own attack weapons, they will fight to protect our right to do so, for such a fight is deemed needed to guard against the slippery slope that could ultimately take their beloved choice of firearms away.

And so … periodically, some well-armed lunatic goes off and kills lots of people, and everyone of sound mind sincerely mourns the result. But the laws don’t change. “Guns don’t kill, people do,” remains one of our national mottos.

Another obvious way in which yesterday’s mayhem in Tucson SHOULD be a teachable moment, but likely will not, involves its lessons with respect to the nature of our political discourse. To be sure, thanks to the madness of Tucson, we may --repeat may -- have seen the end to the most blatantly violent metaphors in our political attack campaigns, like the ones run by Sarah Palin to suggest that if a politician takes an opposing position on a particular issue, we should “target” them and place gun-sights on maps of their Congressional districts. Truly, that form of communication is beyond obnoxious and has no place in civilized society. But folks, I don’t hear Sarah’s party calling her out on her antics; at least they didn’t on Meet the Press. And even if they had mentioned her excesses, or if both parties agreed not to include gun metaphors in their political language, would that honestly stop the bloodshed?

The root cause of yesterday’s tragedy – other than the fact that some people are a whole lot crazier than others, and modern weapons allow these crazies to take many lives – is that our political environment has become the equivalent of a battle royal in the Octagon. We can preach all we want about the virtue of civility, and the panel did a lot of that on Meet the Press, but Americans are competitive, aggressive people who often see matters as a simple choice between good and evil. While it is clearly in our power to take away a few limited types of metaphors from our political arena, much as we have taken away words like “Nigger” or “Kike,” the vitriol, cheap shots, and general sense of antagonism with one’s political rivals is surely here to stay. Given that reality, as long as we enable the loopiest among us to acquire semi-automatic weapons, we’re going to have mass murders, whether we use gun-metaphors in our political slogans or not.

I started the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington two years ago in part because I felt that only by bringing opposing camps together in a legitimately collegial environment can we ever achieve the kind of civility that statesmen love to talk about, but all too rarely seem to practice. And even before starting that group, I wrote in a novel about how wonderful it would be to turn on the TV and watch Arabs singing the praises of Jewish interests and Jews doing the same for Arab interests – all of which would make the point that it would have to be a pretty thin pancake not to have two sides.

But my humble efforts only involve fiction books or local dialogue societies. In the “real world,” national politicians fight like hell to get elected and then become beholden to the well-financed interest groups who determine whether they’ll get re-elected. And radio and TV personalities, who are told to get ratings or get off the air, recognize that when it comes to ratings, the more combustible their show, the more marketable their show. So are we really going to see progressive Democrats stand before the nation and explain in clear terms why liberty-loving, Bible-toting Republicans aren’t hypocritical pigs, or see conservative Republicans get on the air and explain why Democrats who favor a generous social welfare net aren’t socialists or communists?

Political parties have been around in this country as far back as the days of Jefferson and Hamilton. They are part and parcel of a vibrant democracy. The problem is not that they exist. The problem is that they exist in the absence of civility-promoting values that can be stronger even than partisanship.

At present, we Americans do not see a crisis so profound as to require the nation as a whole to come together. Those on the right still believe they can hopefully dominate and eviscerate those on the left, and at least as of two years ago, the opposite applied as well. We don’t believe we’re in an “all hands on deck” situation, as we believed during the Depression … World War II, or, I am guessing, during our Revolution. If we really believed that climate change posed a clear and present danger to our own welfare or those of our children, perhaps we would come together, figure out a plan, and implement it – without vitriol. If we really believed that we were at war with a foreign country that posed a clear and present danger to the residents of our cities, perhaps we would come together and fight behind a single leader – without vitriol. And if we really believed that we had such an economic crisis that the well being of poor and rich alike was at stake, perhaps we would come together, figure out the fairest possible way to grow the economic pie, and work like hell to make that happen – without vitriol.

But until events truly threaten us – and not merely tiny pockets of us on rare occasions – I don’t see us working together very often, and I sure don’t see an end to the vitriol. Sorry to be so pessimistic, but sometimes pessimism and realism coincide, and this is one of them.

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