From a Moment of Silence to a Moment of Engagement: Common Sense in Responding to the Tragedy in Tucson

01/13/2011 06:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following is an open letter to students enrolled in my Hate Crimes course during the fall semester, 2010.

10 January 2011

Dear Students:

Thank you for the notes and comments I have received since our final class meeting last semester. Interestingly, among the many good wishes and kind words of appreciation I have received, there also is the question raised by some: Where do we go from here? The clear implication is that we embarked on an amazing journey during the fall term and many people--recognizing that the challenge has been set but not met--want that journey to continue.

As I watched the President and Mrs. Obama lead the nation today in a moment of silence in honor of the 6 people killed and the 14 wounded in this weekend's shooting rampage in Tucson, I was struck by the recognition that this would be the perfect time to address the question, the challenge you have posed. That is partly because our class has advanced from the end to the beginning. By that I mean more than the end and beginning of calendar years and school terms, but the end of old attitudes and beliefs, the beginning of a new critical framework. It is a critical framework that will serve you well at this time, as we move from a moment of silence to a moment of engagement.

Before the events of this weekend, I intended to frame this letter around themes that emerged from Thomas Paine's Common Sense, which was published 135 years ago on this date. Among the themes resonating from that pamphlet, which launched a popular revolution in thinking, a new way of seeing the world, was the notion that interdependence is at the foundation of independence. The rights of the many are tied inextricably to our ability to protect the rights of the few. Equal rights. Equal protection.

As I said in parting at the end of last semester, you are the next generation of leadership. Part of that responsibility of that leadership will be to help people develop a new appreciation of the value of difference. This can be a daunting realization, if you allow it to be. Don't allow it be that way. After all, we now have a clear view of the reality we face, which is why we recognize that the "lone wolf" media narrative of the dysfunctional individual shooter in Tucson will not go far enough in helping us understand the carnage at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' "Congress on the Corner" event January 8. The debate over whether angry political rhetoric is to blame also doesn't go far enough. In both cases, people will become distracted from the real meaning of this latest act of violence--violence, which has its roots in the construction of difference in America.

We see now that the problem of hate crime--ethno-violence--is about bias more than hate and about power more than bias. Clearly, this is much larger than the isolated problems caused by pathological individuals. Much larger than the problem the media have framed for us. Much larger than the criminal justice system alone is equipped to handle, given its emphasis on individual behavior (retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence).

The key to success is in recognizing first the systemic problems we are facing, in rethinking how we have come to see difference based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and all the other categories we construct in our society in order to value and devalue, to include and to exclude, to empower and to marginalize.

Will we continue to establish and maintain difference in oppositional terms (where good can only be good, if it is compared to something defined as bad; where smart can only be smart if compared to something stupid; where worthy can only be so, if compared to something unworthy; where what is American is clarified by what is not American)? Do we continue to take this social construct and use it to justify the allocation of rank, privilege and power? Do we acquiesce in the enforcement of that construct and assignment through perpetuation of entertainment stereotypes, news media representation and religious doctrine, as well as through education, law and family values? Do we continue, as a result of all this, to provide a justification for marginalizing groups in our society and enforcing that marginalization--policing the borders of our social interaction--through violence? Violent enforcement that begins with bullying on schoolyard playgrounds and ends with bullets in a strip mall parking lot.

Or, do we instead, dare to be different ourselves? Journalist Thomas Paine initiated a popular discussion of revolutionary new ideas. Physicist Albert Einstein is reported to have said that we cannot begin to solve the problems of the world with the same mindset that created these problems. The spiritualist Wayne Dyer offers that, when we change the way we look at the world, the world itself changes. Consider all the ways you now see the world differently. Consider the critical thinking skills you have honed throughout your college experience and especially in our time together. Consider how we might show people that change doesn't have to play out in a Zero Sum Game--where the gain of one comes only at the expense of another. Consider all the ways you might help others change the way they see the world; all the ways the world might change as a result.

It starts with asking questions--questions of yourself and of others. Small things, really. Small things with huge impact. "Why is that joke funny?" "What do you mean when you say, 'That's so ghetto?'" "Or, when you say, 'That's so gay?'" "Take back our country, from whom; from what?" What about media word play? Why do the media resort to use of inaccurate and inflammatory terms, like "reverse discrimination" or "Ground Zero" mosque? What about the messages of political leaders who incite more than they inspire?

The greatest achievement of our time together during the fall term arguably is your ability to raise these kinds of questions, armed with the vocabulary to help craft the answers. The greatest challenge certainly is to continue doing so and to encourage others to engage in the process. If you do nothing more than this, you will be doing a great deal, for you will begin chipping away, breaking through the border fences, deconstructing a systemic, structural problem that is only limiting our national progress. And you can start the process by helping people recognize that the analysis of the tragedy in Tucson should not focus only on the meaning of Sarah Palin's use of violent symbolism (the crosshairs to "target" political opponents), and coded language ("don't retreat, reload"). The analysis must include a consideration of the reasons people have come to believe that it is socially acceptable to visualize certain groups in the sights of those crosshairs--the groups and the elected officials who have advocated on behalf of equal treatment of these groups.

Some of you already have told me you want to do more--in law and journalism and social work and education and counseling. Certainly, there is something for everyone to do. Even if your chosen profession is not directly on point, you will be able to volunteer, or even to lend financial support to causes that make a difference.

One way or the other, we all are doing something, even when we do nothing. Everyone is responsible for what we have become and what we are destined to become. You have something extraordinary to share in the process. Don't waste it. Don't lose this chance to see a new world and to make that vision, that world, a reality. Don't miss this moment of engagement, this point where we finally can help people connect up the dots of awareness that can link us all to a higher consciousness, the highest social good. That point where coexistence is the norm because interdependence is recognized; where interdependence is recognized because difference is valued; where difference is valued because this enlightened view has become merely a matter of common sense.