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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Tragedy in Tucson

Politics, Guns and America President Obama spoke for most Americans yesterday, as presidents do when tragedy strikes and something truly senseless happens, when he said we “would get to the bottom” of the horrific events on a sunny Saturday morning outside a Safeway store in Tucson.

Get to the bottom indeed.

We all tend to measure the impact of big events by the closeness of personal connection. For me, this one is close and truly does, as Tucson resident and former Bush Administration Surgeon General Richard Carmona said, make your heart bleed.

I spend a good deal of time in Tucson. Our place is less than two miles from where the mayhem that took six lives, including a respected federal judge and a nine year old girl, took place. I’ve been in that Safeway store a hundred times, often on a sunny Saturday morning, to get my daily newspaper fix.

I’ve also followed from a distance the promising political rise of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who now fights for her life not to mention a chance for a further political career. Before going to Congress, Giffords represented parts of Tucson in the state legislature and struck me – regardless of your partisan tint – as the kind of bright, well-spoken, committed young person we want and desperately need in our politics.

While it is much too early to come to judgments about the motive – if any – of the apparently badly troubled young man who is in custody and accused, perhaps with unidentified others, as the murderer. It is nonetheless inevitable that getting to the bottom of this American tragedy will turn to politics and guns.

It is already being asked if our American political culture has become so coarse, so bitter and tinged with the language of violence that such events directed at political people are made more possible. An eyewitness to the Tucson events said there was no doubt the gunman’s real target was the Congresswoman.

The wise and experienced old sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik – he’s been sheriff for 30 years and is respected for his blunt candor – said it explicitly.

“Let me say one thing,” the 73-year old Dupnik told reporters yesterday, “because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by the people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

Dupnik, in sadness and in anger, said Arizona has become “a Mecca” for intolerance and bigotry.

This much we know. Giffords’ Tucson office was vandalized during the intense blizzard of national vitriol surrounding the health care legislation, she was shouted down at town hall meetings and, by all accounts, the campaign in Arizona’s 8th District last year was bitter and nasty. And, of course, Sarah Palin and others used tough language and imagery, including putting crosshairs over Giffords’ district, to target her for defeat last November.

Giffords made note of the Palin’s actions last fall when she said, “She [Palin] depicted the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences.” Palin, it must be noted, was one of the first to condemn the outrage.

Ironically, Giffords was a true moderate in the House. She was a “Blue Dog” Democrat who cast a protest vote last week again Nancy Pelosi. She voted instead for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who was himself once beaten senseless in the name of politics. Giffords proudly read the First Amendment on the House floor last week during the reading of the Constitution and she was widely regarded as a calming voice in a divided district.

Consequences. Words are powerful weapons and, at times, the alarming coarseness of American political rhetoric does seem seriously deranged and dangerous. Calls for civility have never seemed more timely or more necessary. The Los Angeles Times editorialized this morning calling out the truly moronic postings – from all points of view – regarding the Giffords shooting. Read it and weep again.

Getting to the bottom also requires a mature society to engage in real and sober self-reflection about our culture of guns. I know, I know, this is the third rail of American politics, but finding the discussion uncomfortable or politically difficult doesn’t make the self-reflection any less important. How can a culture that claims to value the sanctity of life tolerate the level of gun violence we seem to now find tolerable?

Once again American politics intersects with guns and violence. Ours is a great country, but the tragedy in Tucson suggests once more many uncomfortable things about our less-than-perfect Union. We have some work to do to get to the bottom and try to learn from – and rise above – yet another horrific tragedy.

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