Which is why Obama's speech, and Gonzalez's blessing, is so important. I would love to believe that their words about our spiritual unity, our need to make the world as good as Christina Taylor Green imagined it, will inspire us to put aside--at the very least--gun targeting images, talk of killing those who oppose us politically, and metaphors of war to describe how we need to treat each other.
But I doubt it will. Just as guns are our national heritage and part of our culture, so too is vitriolic rhetoric among politicians and pundits. Neither are they likely to change. At least, not change very much.
So instead what should we do? How should we make what happened in Tucson less likely to happen again? How should we make good "the better angels of our nature" and learn something of value from the speeches of Gonzalez and Obama? Something that would, indeed, honor the memory of the victims. Something that would help us achieve a more perfect union?
Two ideas come to mind. The first is to improve the ways in which duly authorized agencies of the state and federal government share information about mentally unstable individuals who have a history of causing disruption and/or threatening violence in public places. Jared Lee Loughner had such a history and it was well documented. But under existing federal and state laws and with the meager state funding available for either monitoring or treating mental health issues, there is currently no way for authorities to connect the dots. Nor gun dealers to access background information of that ilk. And so, as a result, there is also no way to stop a person such as Loughner from purchasing a weapon of mass destruction.
Which brings me to the second idea. Not gun control in the usual sense, because any realistic hope of passing gun control legislation that prevents the sale of handguns or assault rifles is doomed to failure. Besides, there are already so many of those weapons "out there" that legislation would be pointless. But I do think that if nothing else, there ought to be some room for debate about waiting periods and background checks. If nothing else, we as a society need to protect ourselves from unbalanced individuals and groups who would do us harm. I don't think that is asking too much.
Finally, then, I will say only this one last thing, hard as it is for me, a speech teacher, to do. But here it is: It is not enough to say Americans are a good people and to make fine speeches about our common humanity. Although there are those on the right who don't think words matter enough to inspire actions, I think they do. Maybe in our media-saturated culture not as much as they used to, but still enough to matter, to make a difference that matters.
For this reason, in the hope that words still matter, I think that the speeches we heard last night in Tucson ought to inspire us to ask Congress to act on behalf of--and to protect--our common humanity. We need health care reform that includes funding for monitoring and treating mental health issues in our communities. And we need to question the rhetorical and political infrastructure that makes purchasing a weapon of mass destruction so damned easy for anyone, regardless of their mental state or political leanings.
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