It’s almost as if President Obama and Sarah Palin were talking to each other through their respective speeches yesterday:
"What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."
"But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."
"But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."
"If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle. "
"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"
This last point by Palin is surprising to me, given how easily she conflates Muslims with terrorists. If she really believes that acts of criminality begin and end with those who commit them, then all this hubbub about the not-Mosque at not-Ground Zero was just a bunch of political theater. And how can journalists incite such criminality if it begins and ends with the criminal?
The reason for the illogic is that it isn't really true. Criminal acts are a combination of individual action and the environment that surrounds someone. Individuals need to be accountable for their actions, but there is a shared responsibility when things like this happen. If we don’t question environmental and cultural factors and work to change them for the better, then we run the risk that these kinds of tragedies continue to repeat themselves with other individuals who are in the same environment or have the same kinds of mental illnesses.
So, there might not be a direct link between our current state of political vitriol and this shooting. On the other hand, targeting a politician is by definition a political act. The guy was not so crazy that his violence was random. It was directed at a politician who he thought was evil. Whether or not specific words reached him isn’t the point. The point is that we should all now recognize how careful we should be with our rhetoric, because it reaches the crazy people too.
The main thing we need to do is learn how to criticize and debate without demonizing. It’s something I don’t always succeed at. But, once again, Barack Obama demonstrates that he is a better person than I am. A better Christian, even. I’ve been angry at him over the last two years for his various compromises and caves he has agreed to. But he just turns the other cheek and moves forward. He encourages us to be our best selves. To look for unity when it is easier to point fingers and be divisive.
I wish I could say that everyone who spoke yesterday was as grace-filled, and as Christian. I wish I could say it for myself on most days.