Sometimes, writing is hard. Sure writer’s block comes and goes, but often it is the burden of having too much to say, too many stories to tell, too many feelings to share, and that is certainly how I feel today in light of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona yesterday. The sudden convergence of so many of the things I that I care so deeply about – public service, politics, citizenship, free speech, my country, the freedom to do your Saturday errands and meet your representative at a strip mall – have quite literally been shot in the head. I knew I needed to write, but because this event interconnects so many personal anecdotes, I fear a flood of word vomit. But, I also know if I don’t get it out, I will stay sick.
I was in Washington DC in July (the first of two trips there in 2010) working with a grassroots policy movement I support with bills before Congress to create a United States Public Service Academy. I have now been to DC four times in two years, and each time I feel more completely American than the time before. Other times I feel significantly American are ironically, during and after instances of national tragedy. Yesterday, after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, members of her staff, a federal judge, a child and citizens of the community, I felt the weight of that American identity and all it means to live in a country where we can both meet our Congresswoman at the local Safeway and carry a concealed weapon because (in some states) we have the right to do so.
I have been laid-up in one way or another the past month with various injuries, aches and pains, and yesterday morning started with me trying to not slip into despair over a fairly gnarly muscle spasm in my low back that has severely limited my mobility and hurts like a mother-effer. Knowing that I would likely not be able to run yet again, I could hear the whinging pity party music starting to play in my head. Resigned, I opened my computer and started to mindlessly click around and within about 20 minutes the banner headlines of BREAKING NEWS started to appear that there was a shooting in Arizona. I turned the TV on and started passing through the cable news channels to see who had the best coverage of what was happening. I distinctly chose MSNBC first since I too am not immune to our polarized political/media climate and am a progressive-liberal Maddow watcher, but their coverage was all over the place; stomaching FOX that early and in pain was not yet an option for me, and so I went to CNN, who even though they had the B-team in, were doing the best they could under the circumstances.
Once I started to process what I was hearing, I went back to Facebook to see if any of my Arizona friends and college students with whom I work on the Academy (and have in fact met with Giffords on several occasions) had any news and within minutes declarations of shock and sadness were being posted. I realized then that I was shaking and had to walk away from the computer. My sore back prevented me from doing what would have been best, running or hiking, so I turned on a football game, and tried to numb out rooting for the Saints.
The past 24 hours unfolded on the cable news networks as to be expected, lots of the same meager info being repeated and B-roll of Giffords on the floor of the House on a loop. Also predictable, were the status updates, posts, tweets and blogs that were taking political sides on our now ubiquitous social media outlets. (Remember when… only SIX years ago, there was no Facebook and MySpace was for teens and bands, and no one tweeted excepts birds… sigh. Times they are a changin’.) I of course found myself gravitating to my side of the aisle, and could feel my frustration rising with reminders of all the most famous vitriol that was spilled less than three months ago during the mid-term elections. I did note however, that my new personal policy of staying out of it on Facebook was doing some good for my sanity. About eight or so months ago, I began drastically reducing my own postings of news and editorials that I found important and also pretty well stopped commenting on others’ posts of news and editorials. (Also hated that FB started reporting to all on what I was commenting on in the main feeds.) I could see threads of people I know and love having fights and spewing ad hominem attacks on one another out of sheer frustration, often parroting the complete misinformation propagated by the main stream media and commentators but never actually having a conversation about ANYthing. It disgusted me. And worse it shut me up right when we needed cool heads to talk about what to me should be a non-issue: health care for all of our citizens.
I tried to focus on using my power for good not evil, and stuck with promoting the Academy via my FB account, but mostly through direct emails to my family and friends. I was thrilled to be able to go to DC again and walk through the House and Senate office buildings and meet with Reps and Senators and staffers. I felt blessed to have had this experience and to be representing such a worthwhile bill and knew that this work is exactly what the media, mainstream and social, was completely missing with its superheated rhetoric. Although I left DC in July on a high note, I had an ominous sense that the sludge of violent discontent was running just underneath our feet. (Yeah, just like in “Ghostbusters 2” only we did not have those nifty zappers to blast and contain the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of Doom we created.)
In late September, with the campaigns for the midterms at full tilt, The Daily Show announced the Rally To Restore Sanity which would be held the weekend before the elections. My brother surprised me with plane tickets and a plan: we were going to the Capitol to get sane! The show pulled permits at the National Mall for 60 thousand people. Over TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND of us showed up and there was not one arrest. The sheer number alone told me that a majority of Americans of vastly differing views are craving calm and rational discourse but no one is giving it to us, except comedians and musicians. I have written before about the healing power of art and music, but democracy also requires serious, rational, quantifiable debate and discussion which then leads to understanding, compromise and law. And this is supposed to be led by the people we elect to represent our views NOT by highly paid commentators whose only skin in the game is their image, not their citizenship.
Honestly, I have pages of notes that I had written back in October, before the Rally and the elections, and intended on writing a post about it. I was totally riled up, it was working on me too! Something stopped me, and I think mostly it was the sense that no one would really listen because my frustrations, although loud and intense in my head, were not about taking a side. Everyone (on all sides) was in fact participating in the nuclear-option rhetoric. I thought of Sarah Palin and her constant use of gun and attack imagery and taunting; I thought of Representative Alan Grayson calling Republicans “the Taliban”; I thought of Rush Limbaugh <insert racist/homophobic/sexist taunt here>; I thought of Joe Manchin, Governor of West Virginia, shooting the cap and trade bill in a campaign ad. Gross. All of it so disgusting and cynical and hurtful and ultimately consequential. And I did not speak up, so I am now.
Civil discourse is critical. Without it, we enable those among us who lack the self-control and who very well may be mentally ill or unstable to use extreme violence to make their point. Murdering people with whom we disagree is catastrophic. Murdering innocent people who happen to be in the way of the bullets is tragic, heartbreaking, and offensive to the human spirit.
Words matter. Tone matters. Respect matters. American democracy is lost without it. We must show our leaders how to do it as they have lost their way.