Immediately after the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on January 8, there arose a new context in which U.S. political discourse occurs. People across the nation are stunned, saddened, angered by the event, and they want answers. While most of us had never heard of her before, Congresswoman Giffords' name is now a household word. It is one of those tragic moments when people across the nation are deeply touched.
The vitriolic mid-term election last year was a very different context. Polarizing political speech included name calling, the demonizing of opponents and hate speech. It was a context in which Sarah Palin felt comfortable being associated with gun images.
She posted a map that placed 20 congressional districts under rifle-scope "crosshairs" on a list of Democrats she wanted defeated. She wrote, "We'll aim for these races and many others." One of the districts targeted was that of Congresswoman Giffords. In March of last year, Palin tweeted, "Don't Retreat, Instead -" RELOAD! " As she is often photographed using weapons, in the minds of many people, these actions and words are associated with the gun culture that she promotes.
In a prepared speech given by Palin four days after the shooting, she disclaimed any relationship between her earlier actions and words and the Tucson tragedy. She said:
"President Reagan said, "We must reject the idea that every time a law's broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.' Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election."
In this new context, Palin wants to be seen differently from how she wanted to be seen last November. But if the context of this crime didn't matter, as she claims, there would be no reason for her present retreat.
It is true, Jared Loughner shot the gun, but the context matters. We learn from our culture how to be violent. We are given direction by our culture where to direct our violence.
When Jews in Germany were the object of Hitler's scurrilous remarks, they were attacked by neighbors who felt that Hitler's vitriol was license enough for them to do so. In the context of today's Germany, such attacks do not occur.
When gays could not openly serve in the U.S. military, a ship's commander felt no qualms about demeaning gays before his crew. When the law changed, he lost his job. In the new context, that type of attack is unlikely to happen again.
This is not to suggest that the context excuses the actor for that which he did. It doesn't.
The evidence that has emerged indicates that Loughner is mentally ill, and as a result, was prone to violence. But who he chose to direct his violence at was influenced by the context. Had the context been different, Loughner may have harmed someone, but the chances of it being Congresswoman Giffords would have been remote.
There was a complex web of people and events that comprised the context of Loughner's attack. Sarah Palin is not directly responsible for the harm done to the Congresswoman and the 19 others killed or injured in the shooting spree. But for being a high profile player in shaping the context in which mentally ill Loughner choose to target Congresswoman Giffords, Palin does bear responsibility. Others who fostered the negative political hype full of personal attacks on opponents that contributed to the context of this crime share that responsibility.
If we are to have a nation in which such acts are unlikely to occur, we must balance individual responsibility with the co-responsibility of the systemic context in which they occur. Individuals must be held accountable for their actions, AND the context must be held accountable.
As each of us is an element of the larger context, we can begin to change the context by not participating, even indirectly, in the ugly political rhetoric that creates a context in which political attacks become violent. We have a choice: tend the context toward Oneness or mire it in duality.