Just Thinking

Looking for Common Ground

by Richard Gilman

The new edition of Thinking Arizona was prepared before the calamitous events of Saturday, January 8.  Its topic is campaign spending on state and legislative races, not the congressional races that have their own financial disclosure process.

It can’t be published, however, without noting that no thinking Arizonan, much less one with an ounce of humanity, can be anything but horrified – and outraged– by the shooting spree aimed at Gabrielle Giffords that took six lives and wounded many more.

Even as Giffords and the other survivors fight for their lives, the soul-searching has begun.  Within hours of the shootings, the debate began over whether the tragedy is entirely the deranged act of a very disturbed person or the tragic consequence of a polarized environment that has turned frighteningly dangerous.

That it is a debate was immediately obvious the very next morning in the letters to the editor column of the Arizona Republic.

A Phoenix woman was among several who expressed similar thoughts: “There is a toxic, dangerous atmosphere in Arizona.  The recent gun-law changes allowing people to show up anywhere carrying assault rifles such as occurred during one of President Barack Obama’s visits to our state was a train wreck waiting to happen.  We can’t blame the individuals with serious mental problems and not own up to the nasty rhetoric, hate and name-calling speeches we all saw in the last campaign.  Vulnerable individuals may act, but Arizona has to face the part we played in creating this sick environment.”

Anticipating such sentiment, a Mesa man responded in the very same set of letters:  “I expect in the coming months that we will hear various political beliefs condemned as responsible for this act – and the act itself used to attempt to discredit these beliefs . . . If we truly wish to ‘soften the rhetoric’ in this country, than an important step will be to not use the actions of those who can only be described as insane as mud to be slung against the political beliefs of others.  No set of beliefs can be cited as motivating this act.  If one believes that murder is ever acceptable, it can only be because this person is sick to begin with.  Therein lies the true thing to be blamed.”

The hope that the enormity of the tragedy would take the shrillness out of the debate did not last long.  By Monday, the topic was becoming one of the main story lines in the media.  And unfortunately politics showed signs of reverting to form.

A lightning rod was Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who spoke his mind at the press conference on the evening of the shootings.  Clearly emotional over the events of the day, he said, “We have become the mecca of prejudice and bigotry . . . The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.  Unfortunately, Arizona, I think has become sort of the capital.”  In a later interview he said, “The disturbed personalities are the most susceptible to the vitriol.”

Some, perhaps many, cheered his words.  Meanwhile, however, others seethed.

A video clip of his remarks posted the next morning by The Arizona Daily Star drew a vitriolic online debate for and against.

The posting of one woman was indicative:  “Dupnik did nothing to address the tragedy in my opinion, but did add more fuel to the fire with his personal political comments…he needs to go…now. Shame on you Sheriff Dupnik… we as Arizonans do not appreciate YOUR vitriol… go away and shut up, should any copy cats attempt another heinous crime…we can thank him for his asinine comments.”

Dupnik’s critics, beyond taking offense that he would speak out at all, attack him for making what they see as the presumption that the gunman’s acts were in some way precipitated by hate talk.  We don’t yet know whether Dupnik’s statement was founded in proof, or the frustrations of a long-time lawman whose professional assessment is that we have a problem.

At the same time, those who criticized him are making a very large presumption of their own.  They maintain that hate talk had nothing to do with the rampage; the assault was fully attributable to a man’s insanity.  At this point, how could they know that with any more verity than those who believe the opposite?

In fact, we may never know the full answer to everyone’s satisfaction.  Judging by what has been reported about him, the assailant isn’t going to straighten it out for us.   In the meantime, however, we run a very real risk of a  breakdown in the civility of the discussion.

In addition to the for’s and the against’s, there was a third point of view expressed in the letters to the Republic.  It came from a Tucson woman, who wrote: “We must take a stand.  We must become civil and learn how to discuss our differences in language that does not inflame but instead, informs.” 

The purpose of Thinking Arizona, in its small way, is to encourage just that.

The instinct is to fight back.  That is wrong.  Nor, however, is this a time to sit back.  The object is not to fight but somehow to arrange a coming together of those who can find common ground in their horror and outrage.  Doing so cannot be seen as weak, a passive act. 

We have to believe that ultimately words and logic, not weapons, will prevail over madness.

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