01/21/2011 08:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Road from Tucson

Today Congresswoman Giffords will leave the hospital. Her steady convalescence sends a signal of hope -- one that should inspire all of us to step back, assess our own surroundings and do our best to make sure a Tucson massacre never happens again.

Who do we blame, The gunman or society?

Judging from most news coverage, it appears we've failed to recognize the impossibility of separating the killer from the rest of us. If we just blame Jared Lee Loughner, we're committing what psychologists call an "attribution error". That's when an incident is blamed on the individual instead of the situation -- or the system. For Americans to learn from this horror, it will be important to understand Loughner's own motivation, but also what culture and society elicited from him. What should we change about the system to prevent the Loughner types from achieving their goals?

Arizona is a laboratory of today's USA, it has a large population that mixes politics, race, poverty, wealth, urban and rural lifestyles. It is probably the state with the most potential to create a new American myth. Or destroy it. Will Arizona succeed or fail? More precisely, will America become a modern and prosperous democracy?

The road signs from Tucson to Phoenix boast "Guns Keep you Safe". Actually, the implicit message here -- that force works -- is often not true, neither here nor elsewhere on the planet. (Look at Afghanistan and our military's struggle to find alternatives.) This is what the golden myth of the West has become. Crass flogging for guns and political discourse silenced by fear. At the present moment, we all live in Tucson. Our country is the Arizona of the world: scared, tense, armed and not communicating well. Can our system integrate the vast pressures pulling it apart? Can we be present and powerful in a different way in the world? Our challenge on the road from Tucson is not just wither America?... but whether America.

Studies have demonstrated that personality traits come to the surface depending on circumstances. Situations can make any of us kind or cruel, creative or destructive, heroes or criminals. From Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson, it seems that we have created an enabling environment for murderously violent public expression. Throughout human history, societies that survive develop mechanisms for discharging extreme emotions. If we want Americans to be kind, creative, heroes, we must begin a healthier discussion about the institutions that represent all of us. That would be the government.

But you have to feel responsible before you feel accountable. I've never seen right wing media types get defensive so quickly. They should. The trip wires that protect our system against deranged violence have atrophied because of anti-social conservative legislation: the elimination of mental health facilities, the lack of reasonable gun regulations. Both Democrats and Republicans are against gun control, you say. That's because Democrats are allowed to be liberal or conservative but Republicans must be either conservative or radical. Anybody with a toddler knows that power without oversight is a prescription for abuse. That's what a government is for, to set protective boundaries. Our government has failed to modernize, to keep up. Under the relentless and merciless onslaught of the Right, it does its best just to survive.

These right wing ranters are wrong. The choice is not between freedom and a padded cell. We can't get rid of their malignant voices. What we can do, however, is change the situation. Let's marginalize them with a counter narrative and a new practice of self-governance. It is time for the rest of us to make explicit what we've been taking for granted: Living peacefully is the normal state of affairs in society and its because we have good rules. Government done well has the potential to improve our lives. Rules keep us safe. They make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness possible and we all participate in them every day. Think of a four-way stop. Think of clean air. Think of Social Security.

What will happen to our public space?

Representative Giffords loves the interpersonal part of politics. The event where the massacre happened -- Congress on your Corner -- allow Members to diversify how they interact with the public. All elected leaders are interested in creative ways to meet constituents and improve communication. For Members of Congress, the Town Hall model has diminished. A friend who worked for a Michigan member told me that her office started experimenting with new methods more than a decade ago -- when the militias started showing up. More recently, the antics of anti-health care activists with free range microphones made large public venues undesirable.

How do we create a new story about ourselves?

Boomers, since you started out well but then left us a broken soundtrack, get involved again. Participate in and fund local initiatives that both improve the community AND communicate about it. Create a tag team of people who can translate federal policy into locally meaningful information. Hire freshly minted college grads to form civic support teams to coordinate all of this activity. Pay them to blog about community. Create new media strategies to amplify this collective message. Use electronic infrastructure in all its forms to disseminate these stories. Help your elected leaders devise new ways to interact safely, in public. Take loud credit for the peaceful society you're creating.

Millennials, it's obvious that you have the global codependence necessary to pull off this change. You appear completely willing to take on responsibility for damages you didn't inflict on society -- or the planet. Keep the spirit, but temper your faith in technology with some kind of governing experience. Real human relationships matter in politics. Our old, stodgy institutions will change, but slowly. Millennials inside and outside of government: Talk to each other!

The most important thing to know is this: We speak our world into existence, so we'd better say some good things about it. After the tears, the best that we can do for John, Gabe, Dorothy, Christina, Dorwin and Phyllis is to carry on stronger than before. And Godspeed, Gabrielle Giffords will soon be back leading the way.

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