A week ago, 12 people got up and went to work, probably like they did every workday. It was a Monday morning, and we all know how hard those can be. Last week, for some people, Monday got a lot worse. At around 8 in the morning, all hell broke loose at the Washington Navy Yard. A disturbed military contractor named Aaron Alexis made a decision to use a gun to take out his frustration or his anger or his illness -- the truth is still working its way to the surface -- on his fellow workers. My first thought was, "What now?" I wondered if I was watching another Fort Hood or Tucson, Ariz., or Boston Marathon.
A week later, it appears Aaron Alexis acted alone, not out of a political motivation but out of mental illness. Aaron Alexis appears to join the alleged ranks of Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner and James Holmes. What are we going to do about the mentally ill in this country? It's a question I grapple with on a regular basis as a mental health therapist. When is someone a danger to self or others? What should be the societal response to potential threats to the public? That is a conversation we need to have.
That conversation barely got started last week when I saw a news story about a University of Kansas journalism professor placed on administrative leave for the following tweet after the shooting: "blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters." His tweet wasn't all that unusual; after these kinds of tragedies, when people are incensed by the violence, some react with violence-laced rants.
We're fairly good at arguing with each other. Twitter is just the latest, convenient way to blast verbal salvos across a wide variety of topics. Some of these topics aren't really substantive, like sports teams or, even, political parties. But other topics require discussion and consensus because action needs to be taken. Ann Brill, dean of the journalism school at the University of Kansas, speaking about the NRA tweet, said: "While the First Amendment allows anyone to express an opinion, that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of others. That's vital to civil discourse."
In a way, the polarization in our society reminds me of the deterioration in civility that happens when a marriage disintegrates. According to a study I saw, 56 percent of those asked blamed their divorce on "too much arguing." The two parties stop talking and start yelling, hurtling accusation after accusation, usually each with a kernel of truth. The louder they yell, the less they hear. I'm afraid that's where we're headed as a society.
After the dust-up over his tweet, Professor Guth appeared to take the high road, saying that "a conversation" was what he "wanted all along." He also said, "I know what I meant. Unfortunately, this is a topic that generates more heat than light." His role now, as he sees it, is to "be the calm in the center of the storm."
So, he lights a verbal match and chucks it into an incendiary topic then laments more heat than light gets generated? Now that he's flamed his rant across the Twit-o-sphere, he's going to sit back as the epitome of calm and pronounce judgment on the ensuing reaction? That's not going to get us where we want to go.
For good or ill, we are married to each other, as a broad, diverse, national family that must find a way to get along. We've already shown we're good at arguing; it's time to show we're serious about lowering our voices, stopping the accusations, accepting the kernels of truth from the other side and have a genuine, productive conversation about some very difficult issues. A mob can't have that conversation but a family can and should.