01/19/2011 03:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Interdependence or Death

How the debate about rhetoric is missing the "big lesson" that must define the post-Tucson Massacre world.

By sheer chance, the first time I ever woke up in Tucson, Arizona was the fateful morning of Saturday, January 8th. I was visiting old friends who live about a mile down the road from the Safeway where the local Congresswoman was greeting constituents. Had we stepped outside a few moments sooner, we might have heard the shots.

That night, we gathered with 300 or so others holding candles outside Rep. Giffords' hospital room. We sang. And prayed. And cried. Most importantly, we all shouted "get well Gabbi" so loud we could even hope that someone in her room - maybe even Gabbi herself - could hear us.

We were there because we all felt a powerful instinct to find the meaning behind the tragedy and try to make things better. Like many progressives, that same instinct first steered my ire towards violent right-wing rhetoric. But while that stuff is certainly bad for our democracy, there doesn't seem to any more evidence linking this killing to Sarah Palin's crosshairs map than to the Gears of War game I played on my X-Box the previous week.

By immediately launching our petitions and focusing our analysis on this narrow tack, progressives are missing the much bigger lesson of this horrific episode -- one that makes a much more important point about why the extreme right-wing world view is such a threat to life in America.

The fundamental difference between the right-wing and the left-wing world-view could be described as the "Island Delusion" and the "Continental Reality".

For those caught in the right-wing Island Delusion, people are all naturally and fundamentally separate. Only the money they can individually accumulate, or the guns they can personally own will keep them and their loved ones safe. They want borders closed, degenerates jailed and bad guys in distant lands bombed into oblivion. And the worst-case scenario is that an overreaching government might invade their island and force them to share with the undeserving suckers on other islands who didn't plan ahead.

Those who see the Continental Reality understand that rather than each man being an island, we're all together on one big metaphorical continent. We're free, but functionally interdependent. So we believe government must serve as a guaranteed, accountable instrument to help us pool our resources and look out for each other. This is critical because a break down anywhere could affect any of us.

Most faiths and moral traditions offer lots of reasons to prioritize collective welfare above individual greed. But practical common sense provides the most powerful reason of all.

In 2006, the state of Arizona cut taxes by $500,000,000. By November of 2009, state IOUs exceeded $500,000,000 for the first time in Arizona history. Over the last year state services have been slashed, including a $36 million cut to state mental health services.

According to the Arizona chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, these cuts gutted services designed to train the public on how to identify and secure treatment for people like Jared Loughner -- the obviously deranged 22-year-old community college drop-out who demonstrated every warning sign in the book and then went on to shoot 18 people.

Would these mental health programs have stopped Jared Loughner? Possibly. They've stopped others like him, and they're the best hope any of us have to prevent exactly this kind of tragedy before it occurs. What's certain is that the right-wing prescription of perpetually lower taxes for the wealthy and fewer government services for the rest of us leaves every one of us less safe.

So Sarah Palin's 2010 political map IS relevant -- but not because of the over-heated logos. It's important because the whole point of the strategy her map illustrated was to replace Representatives like Gabbi Giffords with those promoting the Island Delusion. If successful, Palin's map leads to a future in which the rich have lots of money and none of us have any reliable safeguards against lunatic violence.

In a post-Tucson Massacre world, we can no longer allow the reflexive call for ever-lower taxes and reduced spending to sit uncontested in the mainstream of public debate. Every time a politician, pundit or neighbor begins with that premise, we need to ask how many Jared Loughners need to pull the trigger before we get serious about the obvious need for increased investment in vital public services like mental health.

That night in Tucson, a local minister led prayers by candlelight outside the hospital. She asked us all to remember that we are connected -- to each other, to the victims, and even to the perpetrator. She may have been referring to the spiritual connection which many of us felt. But her words could not have been more practically true.

Mental health programs that prevent massacres are of course just one stark illustration of the basic truth progressives have always understood, and America can no longer ignore: We are connected. And therefore, in the real world, the choice we ultimately face comes down to interdependence, or death.