By Frank Wessling
Does the way we speak about one another have consequences? Of course it does.
The back and forth sniping in the media about blame for the Jan. 8 shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona only reflects the hyper-politicized state of public conversation in this country. It doesn’t help us improve the tone of that conversation.
We do need an improvement. We especially need an end to any suggestions, subtle or overt, that taking up arms and shooting is an acceptable part of our political life. When that kind of rhetoric is used along with images of gun sights over targets, it gives permission for action to unstable individuals balancing on the edge of deep frustration.
That was the context behind Jared Loughner’s firing of 31 bullets into a crowd around congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a Tucson meet-and-greet event. Giffords was wounded, along with several others, while a judge, a young girl and four other people were killed. The shooter turns out to be an obviously troubled young man groping for some sense and order in his life. He didn’t seem to find it in a ragged home life, in school or among companions.
There is no way to trace what Loughner did to the rhetoric and images suggesting violence that were part of last fall’s election campaigns in Arizona. But common sense should be enough to see a connection — and move us to call a halt.
Politics is a rough business, more like a wrestling match than a dance competition. There will be insults and name-calling, nasty humor, misleading quotes and distortions of the record. But just as we draw the line at straightforward lying, we should also draw it at any suggestion of violence, especially shooting, in the heat of an election. Minuteman images and the waving of guns at campaign events should have no part in American politics.
Let’s not behave as if political differences make us enemies to be eliminated. We will never have the truly good life we all want if that attitude grows. President Obama, in his talk at a memorial service for the Tucson victims, pointed to a healthier way. He asked that we “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 our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Even better, the Catholic peace group, Pax Christi USA, has circulated a prayer, attributed to Scotland’s 16th-century Queen Mary Stuart, that fits our time:
Keep us, O God, from all pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.
Let us be done with fault-finding and leave off all self-seeking.
May we put away all pretenses and meet each other face-to-face, without self-pity and without prejudice.
May we never be hasty in judgment and always generous.
Let us always take time for all things, and make us grow calm, serene, and gentle.
Teach us to put into action our better impulses, to be straightforward and unafraid.
Grant that we may realize that it is the little things of life that create differences; that in the big things of life, we are one.
And, O God, let us not forget to be kind!