Arizona may or may not be the mecca for vitriol or heated political rhetoric in the United States, but it is certainly a proud state that does not shy away from standing for what it believes in, even if its policies, especially around immigration, multicultural education and gun owner's rights, distance it from mainstream America.
This weekend, however, rebel Arizona was grieving and in shock. Like the rest of the nation, Arizona grieved and lamented the senseless shooting of nineteen people gathered at a public function hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. An aide to the congresswoman, several senior citizens, a 9-year old girl, and a federal judge were among six people killed during the rampage. The shooter has been identified as a 22-year-old Arizona man with a disturbed past.
The mood in my household of war refugees was subdued immediately after we heard of the shooting. Our thoughts went back to our years living in El Salvador during a civil war that ended the lives of at least 100,000 people. During more than a decade it was a common occurrence in the Land of the Hammocks to have politician, a judge, or a faith leader slain in public while doing the people's work. But that type of random carnage just could not be happening in our beautiful, free, and democratic America. Or could it?
As an immigration reform advocate for the past eight years, it has not been easy keeping my anger, my disbelief, and my judgment in check given the non-stop, harmful, anti-immigrant discourse on radio, television, and the internet. At times the discourse has been tainted with blood, as was the case of the shooter at an immigration services organization in upstate New York almost two years ago. That incident encouraged us at CHIRLA to set up a video surveillance system in our building.
After news of the shooting in Arizona broke, it would have been reasonable for me to jump to conclusions and assume the Tucson killer targeted Giffords and Judge John Roll for their pro-immigrant stances. It would have been reasonable to assume that given the often heated and partisan debate in Arizona, post-SB1070, bigots and zealots were out to get Democrats, moderate leaders, or anyone who is not a member of the Tea Party. It would have been easy to blame the dysfunctional mental health care system or even video games for the atrocity that ensued on that Saturday morning.
Instead, I felt pain and sorrow for Giffords' family, for the families of those killed and wounded, for the killer's older parents, and for the good people of Arizona. Selfishly, I had a sense of uneasiness too about my own safety as a community activist and as a citizen openly critical of polarization. Given the level of community organizing we do at CHIRLA, a number of my workmates and I can be found at a similar event anywhere in California at any time of the year. Most importantly, the shooting had me questioning how much damage would our tradition of open civic involvement, no matter the issue, suffer. Granted, we still do not know the shooter's motives; but to me the shooting is a stark-naked attempt to hurt democracy. To me, it was a clear reminder that as an individual or institution I can either be a destructive, disrespectful force that demeans public discourse or be a tool for change and healing.
The irrationality of Saturday's killings has shaken everyone in America who believes moderate discourse on everything from fossil fuels to health care to immigration reform is fast becoming "retro." Much of our body politic is tainted with 24-hour, downloadable vitriol and indiscriminate blathering that goes beyond the pale and mires everyone involved in sludge. As recently as the November 2 mid-term elections and the "lame duck" session of the 111th Congress, the cynicism, sneering, and scorn in speech content in both the Senate and House floors revolved around specific groups of Americans: gays, middle class workers, the unemployed, immigrant students, and so forth. Whatever the topic or the target, it was clear to me as a voter that unless the opposition was chastised enough, pummeled through the proverbial ground, there would be no letting up or governing from either Democrats or Republicans. In the midst of all that sniping, our very basic values and principles as a nation of democratic institutions, grumbled along utterly unimpressed.
What does the recent Congressional circus have to do with the shootings in Tucson, Arizona? As an activist, I am reminded that public service is a privilege and a responsibility. I am reminded that madmen come in all colors, political persuasions, ages, mental health statuses, and geographical locations. As an American, I am reminded that I am blessed to live in a nation of many and one all the same, and that when one member of our community hurts, we all hurt. As a communicator, the Arizona tragedy reminds me that words have meaning and power and that I have a duty to speak from a place of truth, resolve, and respect, even when disagreeing.
Right now, I am still grieving, as are Arizonians and the nation. I do hope that when the nice speeches are over, when the flowers in front of Congresswoman Giffords' office wilt, and when justice is served at the killer's trial, we will look at this tragedy and remember why we are all Arizona, now more than ever before.