Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Wild West

Last week, the shopping mall near our house--the one I will reluctantly go to if I absolutely have to visit a mall--was locked down for three hours because there was a man with a gun taking hostages.  Fortunately, that incident ended without anyone getting hurt.

People at a Safeway in Tucson yesterday who went to meet their member of the US House of Representatives, Gabrielle Giffords, were not so lucky.  Nineteen people were shot, at least six of them fatally, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl who wanted to meet Giffords.  Giffords is fighting for her life after taking a bullet to the head.

To some people, violence like this is an argument for making guns more broadly available.  Their reasoning goes that people might be less likely to do such heinous things if they knew that someone else present was likely to be carrying a gun.  I do not accept this logic.  I think that if there were more guns, more people would get hurt or killed.  The shooter, we are told, posted a farewell on his MySpace page; clearly, with or without other armed people at the scene, he did not expect to leave it alive.  It's hard to see how having more guns around would serve as a deterrent to someone like that.

Much has been said about the way in which our overheated political rhetoric might contribute to a climate of violence that makes an incident like this more likely.  I share that fear.  While we do not know much yet about the shooter's motives or his state of mind, the very fact that we think he could have been inspired by the political hate speech that is so prevalent now is argument enough.  People have the right to say what they want, but they also must take responsibility, especially if they command a public forum, for the consequences of what they say.

During the congressional campaign, Sarah Palin's political action committee issued a list of "targeted" seats.  These were in districts where the incumbent was a Democrat, but which McCain and Palin had carried in the 2008 presidential election.  Such a seat was deemed a possible win for the Republicans, because that looks like a swing district.  So far, so good.  But it's at least an eerie coincidence--and a lot of bloggers pointed it out in the hours after the shooting--that a map on that website showed those congressional districts in the crosshairs of a rifle.  One of those districts was Giffords's.  Did that metaphor inspire or encourage yesterday's incident?  It's a question worth asking.

In view of that, Palin needs to do more than post a generic message of condolence on her Facebook page.  She needs specifically to repudiate violence.  She needs to make it clear that she wants nothing to do with people who would interpret her "targets" literally.  I am not saying that Palin is responsible for the shooting.  I am saying that an unbalanced person might take that map as a call to action, and she needs both to distance herself from such actions and strongly condemn them, lest she be misunderstood.

Palin's 24-hour silence on this subject leaves me wondering what she really thinks.  She has to be aware that people are making the connection.  Is that what she wants?  If so, that's even more frightening than yesterday's terrible events, because it bodes more such days.  And where are the news media?  Has no reporter tried to ask Palin about that map and its possible role in the attack on Giffords and her constituents?  If Palin won't say anything voluntarily, someone should at least raise the issue.

Arizona is the center of lively debates on many things:  immigration, health care, the economy, the housing crisis.  We're known here for being outspoken and even a little extreme--on both sides.  But spreading guns around and letting such debates extend to physical violence is simply not the way a rational, just society solves problems.  Sarah Palin ought to say that, joining the many other politicians who have already said it.  And we all ought to think about how we can air differences without dehumanizing those who disagree with us  and without depicting them as enemies

Yesterday was terrible.  My wish is that it never be repeated.

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