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No Longer a Kinder, Gentler Nation
By Roderick MacDonald
“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
—Alice in Wonderland
Last month this same space was dedicated to the implications of hate speech in our society. Who could have foreseen the recent events in Tucson that would ignite such fierce debate on this issue? In case you happen to be one of only a dozen or so people on the planet who missed it, let me recount.
One night in January, an entire nation went to bed and awoke to find that during the night America like Alice had tumbled head first down the rabbit hole. In the immediate aftermath of this madness the world as we knew it stopped making any sense. Perhaps what is even more frightening is that there appears to be little hope for America of finding its way back.
The mass killing in Arizona by a deranged gunman is nothing new. This type of public declaration by the mental defectives and the disenfranchised among us has become almost commonplace. However, this case is arguably different. The victims included a young, attractive and intelligent US Congresswoman whose life is forever changed, a respected US Federal Court Judge and a nine-year-old girl newly elected to her student council and doomed to suffer the ultimate civics lesson. (Not surprisingly, the same crazies from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church that were the subject of my last article announced their intention to demonstrate at her funeral, but backed off in the face of overwhelming public outrage.)
Never in recent history, including the events of 9/11, has such a mindless tragedy focused the raw glare of the spotlight on the consequences of hate speech in our society, the vitriolic political rhetoric dividing the country, and the desperate need for some form of gun control.
Are all of these issues linked? You better believe it.
In the immediate aftermath of this bloodbath, appeals for sanity emanated from some unexpected sources, included among them the Sheriff of Pima County who co-led the investigation into the shooting and a shooting victim who helped subdue the gunman. Their message was abundantly clear: Something is seriously wrong with America and the country needs to tone down the vitriolic rhetoric and do some real “soul-searching.”
Sound reasonable? Not by a long shot, according to the political wags of all stripes who were dispatched to the nearest microphone to argue that there was absolutely no correlation between the current climate of hate in the country and the twenty bodies littering the Safeway parking lot. Yeah, right.
It is impossible to listen to some of these arguments and not be disgusted, or at least seriously disheartened. Political commentators and party hitmen lamely pointed the finger of blame at each other and in every direction but the obvious one. However, this time the 800 pound gorilla lurking at the end of their collective noses will not be ignored.
How is it possible that a young man with a history of mental problems that scared the hell out of his professors and classmates, forced his departure from school and his rejection by the army, be allowed to legally purchase a nine-millimeter semi- automatic pistol just a couple of months before using that same weapon to wreak such wanton destruction?
To the obvious disgust of CNN’s David Gergen, probably the most respected and rational political commentator on television, one Tea Party official tried to dish up the argument that the gun laws were actually irrelevant to this particular slaughter and that the blame rested entirely with the public’s inability to detect and report early warning signs that might have predicted the outcome. There may be a grain of truth to that, but you still can’t dig the hole without a shovel.
The great irony is that despite billions of dollars spent each year in efforts to protect US citizens from terrorism, these measures are largely futile in preventing such random acts of violence and mayhem. There is only one answer. Get rid of the guns, no matter how long it takes. The Second Amendment was drafted back in 1791, a much different time in American history. Unfortunately, this amounts to blasphemy in many parts of the US, especially Arizona. In a most astonishing departure from reason, one so-called gun law expert interviewed opined that if all the victims had been armed they could have returned fire. I assume that he meant to include the three victims in their seventies and the nine-year-old.
The most thoughtful comment on this state of affairs came from comedian and talk show host Bill Maher, who mused that under the Republican concept of small government an unbalanced individual could not get health care but could still buy a gun. True, but this malaise extends far beyond partisan party politics.
For ten years now, longer than any of the previous conflicts America has been involved in, this deeply divided country has been fighting wars on two fronts and regularly rotating tens of thousands of its young men and women home from the violence of the battlefield. Since 9/11, police and border agents have of necessity become more vigilant and many would argue, much more authoritarian. The Department of Homeland Security has invested more authority in its watchdogs, but this change has chilled relations and created a climate of suspicion that is being visited on all of us who represent the 99.9 per cent of the population that pose no threat at all.
We may be forced to accept all of this as inevitable, but the inescapable truth is that the culture of America has changed dramatically, and not for the better.
Sadly, the voices of reason and moderation are becoming more fearful, and with good reason. Civil discourse is rapidly being replaced by extremism, unchecked vitriol, suspicion and bigotry in a community already plagued by a disproportionate amount of handguns and a propensity for violence.
In short, America has become a dangerous place to live.
The challenge facing lawmakers now is just how to begin to turn this situation around. How does one go about “toning down the rhetoric” when public platforms for the intolerant among us are so plentiful? One thing seems pretty clear: Some kind of thoughtful revolution in public opinion is far overdue.
In his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, former President George H. W. Bush made his much-publicized appeal for “a kinder, gentler nation.”
Sorry Alice, that hope now lays buried with the victims in Tucson.