In the wake of the Tucson shootings and liberal concerns about political rhetoric, our honorable opposition on the right has taken to yelling, "Foul!" Right-wing commentators claim that progressives' concerns about rhetoric aren't real concerns; they're politics. This scream has been so powerful it has sucked the air out of the post-Tucson debate.
The problem is that conservatives are missing the point. Their protest is based on a false premise, at least it's false if I'm the liberal under discussion. My alarm about the words, images and narratives of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Tea Party leaders is not a ploy to win elections or to triumph in policy debates. My concern comes from my own raw fear.
It has taken me 18 days to sort out my feelings, and I still haven't completed the task. It would have been so much easier if I were not on a quest for goodness. Because of my mission, I couldn't give in to the rage that marked my first reaction to the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Christina Green and too many others. I've written and thrown out, revised and deleted, and all the time kept asking myself: What can I possibly say that will lead to the greatest good?
The only answer I've been able to find is to write about how I feel. That's because I've realized during my seven-month quest that goodness can't be based solely on intellect. Understanding goodness with intellect alone produces a clean, safe, academic idea of goodness - goodness as theory only.
But human goodness doesn't show up in our lives in theory. Human goodness is called upon to appear in blood soaked supermarket parking lots and in the seconds, minutes and days afterwards. Real human goodness, as opposed to theory, is created by each of us in what we say and do as our hearts pound, our mouths parch and our blood rises in fury.
Stay with me now as I disconnect from my intellect and follow the white rabbit of emotion down a deep, dark hole. As you do so, remember that I'm talking about emotion, and feelings may or may not mirror reality.
On Saturday, Jan. 8, I was at my computer when my inbox pinged, and I saw the New York Times news alert about the shooting. Not again, I thought, but felt oddly calm. Senseless but far removed from me, 1,200 miles away to be exact.
And then I learned that the central target of the shooting was a Democrat. (I'm a Democrat), a woman (I'm a woman), pro-LGBT equality (I'm a lesbian), and that a 9-year-old girl had been shot dead. (A girl? They shot a little girl?!)
And here's where my thoughts went: The scene isn't Tucson, it's Garden City, Michigan, and I'm 11 years old. I'm sitting at my desk in the 6th grade, eagerly awaiting the last bell. The safety boys have already donned their white belts and are heading out. They click on their transistor radios as they always do, but on Nov. 22, 1963, they don't immediately go to their posts. They stop suddenly in the corridor, the classroom door ignored and closing behind them.
Even with the door shut, we hear them cry out, and then the PA system crackles. The principal announces that President Kennedy has been shot and is being taken to a hospital. My family never prays, but I pray fervently that JFK will be all right. When I get home, my mother is crying as she tells me Kennedy is dead.
When shots rang out on Jan. 8 with a Democrat as the target, I also remembered the year I turned 14. Three weeks before my birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead. Two months after my birthday, Robert F. Kennedy was shot dead. (I awoke to the sounds of his assassination coming out of my father's radio as he shaved in the bathroom across the hall. I opened my eyes and lay confused as I heard the screams of a crowd and an announcer's voice telling me that Bobby Kennedy had been killed, except the announcer kept calling Bobby "John" and then correcting himself. I was awake, yet in an endless nightmare where "They" kept killing the people I liked and none of us, not even the guy on the radio, could keep it straight about which one "They" had actually shot this time.)
When I heard the news about Tucson, here's also what I saw in my mind's eye: Rifles slung over the backs of men attending political rallies, and these men shouting their hatred of my ideas and every politician I admire. Calls for "second amendment solutions" and even less thinly veiled urgings for violent action against America's enemies (AKA me and my friends).
All of this comes after eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their constant attacks on my patriotism and my humanity. Our sin then, as it is now, is that we disagree with them on policy issues. And I can't think of Bush without wondering, as I have many times, where our politics would be, where the United States would be, if the top liberal leaders of a generation hadn't been gunned down.
At the instant I realized that yet another Democrat had been shot, I thought that "They" were doing it again. The fact that the shooter may be mentally ill didn't even occur to me. The fact that Republican Ronald Reagan had also been shot in 1981 didn't penetrate my pain and decades-old frustration. "They" had assassinated our leaders in the past, and "They" were doing it again. So yes, my initial response to Tucson was to look around for conservatives to condemn.
Who really is to blame for Tucson? Does anyone other than gunman Jared Loughner share even a tiny bit of responsibility? Ask me that question again in 20 years, and I may have a definitive answer.
What I do know today is that I live in fear that rhetoric will turn into action. The militancy of the American right scares me. I worry that I'm in the crosshairs along with Giffords and anyone else who disagrees with the right. And I worry that the right is using the threat of violence to intimidate the left. (Why else would you openly carry a rifle to a political rally, except as a threat?) I fear that gun-soaked words and the Beckian drumbeat of "liberal treason" is providing a rationale for unbalanced people to pick up guns and use bullets to "liberate" the United States.
I wish I was only playing politics when I talk about political rhetoric. And I pray, deeply and sincerely, that I'm just a fool to be so afraid.
(Picture via pinksherbert's Flickr photostream)