The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona has many lessons to teach us, if we are willing to learn.
This was an attack, not only on those directly involved, but upon the institution of US democracy. If a new answer is not found, it will have a chilling effect on open participation in our political process. Some citizens will be afraid to attend political events. Some political leaders will be guarded when meeting informally with their constituents. They may meet less frequently with constituents or request special protection for such meetings. Congress may seek to pass legislation that requires the taxpayers to pay for such on-going protection. These are the old ways of responding to this type of threat, and they are costly on many levels.
Our legal system is now focused on the prosecution of the gunman, seeking to hold him alone accountable. This system is not designed to take into account the fact that every violent act, every conflict, every misunderstanding happens within a context, the systemic structure within which the act in question is done and felt. Both the individual act and the systemic context must be considered and held accountable if genuine justice is to be achieved. In a different context, this crime would not have happened.
We learn from our culture how to be violent. Culture provides us with the options from which we choose. Context does not excuse individual choice, but nor is context irrelevant. Three categories of participants are involved in a violent act such as this one: those who commit the act, those to whom the act is done, and the conflict community. The conflict community is the local expression of the larger systemic context. Each act of violence within the conflict community is just the most recent manifestation of its shared experience.
What is the context of this particular crime? In the US, polarizing political speech has been used to divide us between warring camps of liberals and conservatives. The goal is to make one's opponents despicable, both as individuals and as a group. Polarized speech does not happen by accident. Specific strategies are used to generate fear and then manipulate it. (See the series on polarizing political speech, beginning with To Solve a Problem We Must First Know That We Have a Problem) In Tucson, the polarized political speech had become especially vitriolic and hateful.
This war using words is not to be confused with strong debate, which is essential to keep our democracy strong. To challenge the ideas of others and to argue on behalf of our own ideas is healthy. To attack the character of those who see things differently is an attack on democracy.
The state of Arizona is deeply divided over immigration and how to secure the Mexico-US border. Fear of illegal immigrants, often incited by some political organizers to mobilize voters, is another element of the complex web that constitutes the context. This is a heated issue on which Congresswoman Giffords differed with many of her constituents. Another controversial issue was health care reform, which she supported. The polarized political speech around this issue is especially inflammatory.
As more information becomes available, it may be that the dismal state of our mental health system is another aspect of the contextual web of this tragedy. We too often don't care for our mentally ill until they become unstable enough to harm someone. Then they are dealt with in our criminal court system, like any other criminal.
This crime also occurred in a context in which guns are readily available, combined with a view of justice held by many that justice requires vengeance and retribution. When anger and hatred flare and guns are readily available, we must not be surprised when acts like Columbine High, Virginia Tech, and Tucson occur. The NRA argues that the guns are not the problem, it is the people who misuse them. It is also the context. The NRA promotes a pro-gun culture, an important contextual element without which our high rate of gun violence would not exist, as countries without a pro-gun culture consistently prove.
It is unfortunate that our traditional punitive system of justice is an institutional structure in which context is ignored. The criminal courts are only designed to intervene once a crime has occurred and they can determine who did the wrong and what punishment fits the crime. Thus, they offers a remedy only when community connections are so broken that the pain being felt has escalated to a volatile point. By then, other systems of communication are usually cut off.
There is a complex web of people and choices that played a part in setting up the conditions in which the Tucson shooting occurred and the particular consequences it has had, and will continue to have. If we want life in our nation to be different, there must be a balancing of individual responsibility with the co-responsibility of the systemic context in which this crime took place. While the context must not be used as a pretext to excuse the individual actor, likewise, the responsibility of others in establishing the context in which this act of violence occurred must not be ignored.
When we ignore the brokenness of the context, it leaves wounds of disconnection festering which only engenders further conflict. Unless we address the context in which this crime took place and things change, it is only a matter of time until it happens again. Holding only the gunman accountable is not enough.
Also posted on GenuineJustice.com.