As time has passed, I’ve become a firm believer in the adage that discretion is the better part of valor. Upon hearing of the tragedy in Tucson on Saturday, I felt compelled to write my thoughts into this opinion column but then I thought the better of it. Discretion being what it is, I made the decision to wait, forsaking the media moment and my strong feelings, in order to write a more measured and thoughtful column. I’m not certain discretion worked well in this case. I’m not sure I’m more thoughtful now than I was on Saturday.
The human element of the tragedy defies my ability to put it into words. I’m often told that some of what I write makes some readers say, “Yeah, that’s what I think, too!” But in this case, I’m not talented enough to put my feelings into words beyond this: I am unable to understand how any human being can shoot and kill innocent people. I am unable to comprehend how any human being can shoot and kill a nine-year-old girl. The only thing I can come up with is that the human element in the shooter is missing because no human could do that. No human could be so heartless and soulless. I truly wish I could write something that would help to put this into perspective but I simply don’t have the ability to do so. I am sorry.
But there is another element to the tragedy that I do comprehend more clearly, and that is what I am more able to write about.
In 2009, I became an employee of the United States House of Representatives working for a Congressman from Iowa. To this day, I remain on his staff in a very part-time capacity. Contrary to popular opinion, not all elected officials are thieves and liars. The Congressman I work for is a Member of Congress for the very same reason that he became a highly decorated helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. He is driven to serve. He is driven to do what he can to help his neighbors, his community, his state, and his nation. He is not a thief and despite spending hundreds of hours standing right next to him, I have never once heard him tell a lie. I have seen him listen to his constituents, even when they were shouting at him. I have heard him respond with courtesy and dignity. I have seen constituents, with faces initially twisted in rage, leaving a meeting with him with a handshake and, while perhaps not a smile on their faces, at least feeling some assurance they had been heard. He is a good and honest man and has devoted his entire life to serving the public, first by risking his life in Vietnam and now, it turns out, by risking his life as an elected official.
I have never met Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but the congressman I worked for has—he served with her on two committees. He speaks highly of her and he is a man whose respect must be earned. She earned it. I have attended dozens of events similar to Congresswoman Giffords’ Congress on your Corner event at which the shooting occurred. I have seen those who come to such events to voice support and outrage. The vast majority of people are courteous and measured, even if upset about something. Like most of us, they believe that honest and decent discourse is the solution, not hatred and bloodshed. But I’ve also seen those who attend such events that have caused my internal alarms to go off. For a certain handful of people, there is something amiss. They don’t see the world with compassionate or understanding eyes. They see the world, or specific things in it (such as an elected official), as the enemy. They come to such events seeking a target for what they feel the world has done to them. In their eyes is rage and hatred beyond reason or comprehension.
I consider working for the House of Representatives to be an enormous privilege. On my first trip to Washington, D.C., I entered the House office building in awe. Just across the street was the United States Capitol Building. There is so much history here—our nation’s history. To me, these are our hallowed halls for which I have an immeasurable amount of respect.
More than anything else, it seems respect is frequently lacking today. I believe that from the diminishing respect in the nation’s collective mind, the door opens for those carrying rage and hatred. More than ever, given today’s harsh and inflammatory rhetoric, they feel as though they are being given license to act. The shooting, or other violent acts, is not the responsibility or fault of conservative talk radio, nor is it the result of (perhaps) ill-chosen words used months ago by a celebrity politician. The responsibility lies squarely and solely on the shooter. But some also falls on us as a public. Our lack of engagement and conduct of respect is being seen as an invitation, if you will, for some to act upon anger and confusion.
The beauty of our nation is that if you don’t like the president or your representative, you are free to say so, pretty much however and wherever you choose. That is how America works—we disagree, we fight a little, and then we find a compromise under which we move forward. But not liking the President of the United States doesn’t mean you should be childish about it. People wearing “Kill Bush” t-shirts under President Bush or forwarding inflammatory and false emails about President Obama are merely stirring the pot. It’s fine if you don’t like what any president or representative does—let them know that; but childish and increasingly extreme rhetoric simply diminishes us as a nation. Whether Bush or Obama, he is the President of the United States—our president. Please respect the office and our institutions—they have served us well for 235 years. Respect the Capitol, respect the Pledge of Allegiance and respect the institutions and flag. They are all ours. Take pride in it. We are all Americans and we are all striving for the same general goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in order to form a more perfect union. Take pride in being an American and in all things that make us American.
The heroic stories that emerged from the aftermath of the shooting cannot be overstated. We can take incredible pride in these people—they are our fellow Americans and we can only hope that we might ever be as brave, selfless and confident as they are. We can rejoice in the life of nine-year-old Christina Green and learn, and take comfort in her incredible wisdom and optimism. As President Obama said last week, we can try to live up to her ideals, truly a noble aspiration. We can thank God that Congresswoman Giffords and others survived.
But there really is no good news here. There is no way to spin this in a positive way, it should never have happened in the first place. Little Christina Green should not have died. None of them should have died. I’m well aware I often write as though I see the world through rose-colored glasses. I feel privileged to do so. But the glasses don’t work here. The shooting in Tucson was a tragedy that goes far beyond description. Now I am merely left to pray for the survivors, the families of the fallen, our nation, and for the Congressman I worked for. He is a good and honest man serving all of us, and this nation, to the best of his ability. And suddenly I’m afraid for him.
We are a society living in fear of everything from terrorists with shoe bombs to tourists taking photos in public spaces. Should we now fear meeting our elected officials in a supermarket? The Congressman has reason to know fear given his time as an attack helicopter pilot in Vietnam. On the day of the shooting, he told me that he had no intention of changing his schedule or limiting his access to those he has been elected to serve.
Henry Louis Menken, one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century said, “The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear – fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety. “
No one knows what tomorrow will bring but it should not be feared, rather it should be embraced. With each new day is a new opportunity to escape the hard shackles of the inferior man. And it could all begin with respect – not only for each other but also for ourselves. You can, after all, hold firm to your beliefs without losing your human decency.