The service last night for the dead and wounded in Tucson was a memorable and poignant event, but, unfortunately, not a rare event given the fourteen senseless mass shootings in our country that have occurred since Jared Lee Loughner was born in 1988. Two speeches that occurred as part of that memorial service, however, defined it as one of those rare and beautiful moments in American history. For it was during that service, amid all of the "brabbling"--"disposed to cavil or quibble; litigious, quarrelsome; tumultuous, riotous" talk in the media, that two fine, articulate men rose to the occasion and reminded us of what it means to be responsible Americans.
Dr. Carlos Gonzalez, a family practice physician and member of the University of Arizona Medical School faculty, delivered a traditional Native American blessing. It reminded us--or should have reminded us--of the deep spiritual connections between and among us, our responsibility as human beings to the wellbeing of each other, as well as to the wellbeing of all living things. For those of us in Arizona it also reminded us of the special relationship of the state in relation to the 21 federally recognized tribes that settled (or were settled) here, and of our long struggle for peace and justice that is still very much an ongoing conversation
Then President Barack Obama delivered what may come to be considered one of the finest speeches in his still-young presidency. It was a personal statement of conviction that did not quote but that clearly alluded to the words of a previous president who also faced a deeply divided country, Abraham Lincoln, when Lincoln called for the "better angels of our nature" to prevail. Those "better angels" represented for Lincoln, as they must also do for Obama, the transcendent desire in our hearts to do the right thing by our fellow citizens, and to remain united as Americans even and especially in the face of a national tragedy. The speech was, as well, a heartfelt and appropriate expression of concern for the victims and celebrations of the heroes of Saturday's single shooter mass murder and mayhem. By the end of it, there wasn't a dry eye in my house and my guess is the same was true for your house, too. It was our president at his finest, a good man speaking well, sharing our grief and horror while offering us the words we need to hear to begin the healing process.
Here, for me, is the key passage in his speech:
"The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.
I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us."
It was a voice calling for peace, and for critical self-reflection, and for responsible change in the midst of mediated brabbling.
That said, it is instructive to remember that Lincoln's "better angels" did not prevent nor did they halt the Civil War. They were evoked as part of his first inaugural speech, March 4, 1861, three months after the attack on Fort Sumter and two weeks after Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy. While I sincerely hope that nothing of the kind afflicts our nation in the wake of this tragedy in Tucson, I don't think Obama or Gonzalez will have much impact on the national rhetoric. For there are those among the brabblers who sincerely want to bring on a revolution, if not a civil war, and they are probably not going to be dissuaded by these speakers or their speeches.
I don't have to name names, because you already know who they are. You know what they are saying. There is nothing secret or hidden about who they are or what they call for. That is one of the strengths of our democracy and one of the sometimes bitter but always necessary fruits of free speech.
But here is one example--Sarah Palin's speech yesterday--that underscores my point. I was not surprised to hear Sarah Palin deliver what was clearly someone else's words in the hope of appealing to someone else's audience about a tragedy that was really about someone else but ended up being about her. Aside from the nonverbal "tells" present in her body language--the negative head shaking; the rapid blinking, the tight-lipped, firm jaw of suppressed anger--her accompanying words suggest (let's be charitable) a bit less remorse for the victims than for the perceived injury to her ongoing fundraising and aspirations for a 2012 presidential campaign.
Was Palin's posting of gun sights targeting political candidates on her webpage the act of a responsible citizen? No, it was not. It was her choice to do so. In our country she is free to make that choice. And we are free to hold her accountable for it.
Was that targeting imagery enough to at least contribute to the general vitriolic politics that may have had a contributing if not a directly causal role in the Tucson murder and mayhem? I think it was. She says of course not. And because she says it, she must be right because as Stephen Colbert demonstrates, we all know graphics don't inspire actions. After all, when we see a STOP sign we don't have to think it means we are supposed to stop, right? Or does it mean that only the unbalanced among us should not stop?
Palin's disconnect between her words and her images defies logic. But she is not the only politician or pundit who suffers from that disconnect. Nor is the possible link between vitriolic rhetoric on the right, such as Palin's, and our culture of gun-and-killing-and-war imagery and metaphor even the worst of it.
What is the worst of it is our inability to admit we might have been wrong. Even just a little bit.
As too many politicians and pundits of any stripe have lately demonstrated, when confronted with a scandal or when implicated in a crime, there is no need to become either more reflective about it or to apologize for any even unintentional role he or she may have had in it. Denial is the order of the day.