Making Sense Out of the Violence in Tuscon: Reflections From A Migrant

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It's not about
win or lose
Cause we all lose
when they feed
on the souls of the innocent
blood drenched pavement
keep on moving
though the waters stay raging.
Matisyahu - 2009 
The reactions I've witnessed to the violence in Tuscon have made me physically sick.  Ever since I heard the news on Saturday, I've been glued to twitter, the television, and my computer screen, looking for someone to say something that makes some kind of sense.  It seems the only people that have anything worthwhile to say have been keeping mostly silent, using this time to reflect as we probably all should. 

Writing is one of the ways I reflect, taking the thoughts that swirl around me, sometimes wreaking havoc on my spirit, and channeling them into something tangible that I can take apart and make sense out of.  I publish these thoughts publicly here in deference to one of Hillel's famous ancient lessons: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  And when I am for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?"  In short, I'm sick of waiting for someone to say something worthwhile about a tragedy that has shaken me to my core, so I'm going to give it a try.
What infuriates me the most about the reactions to the violence is the lack of humility.  When I say that I am referring especially to commentators tendency to remove themselves from the violence, to put themselves above it.  Its most extreme manifestation is the act of blaming others without first taking personal responsibility for our own flawed roles in this flawed world which all weave together into horrific eruptions like this.   

I will be the first to admit mistakes that I've made in my own writing, of which there are many.  It's gotten to the point where I can no longer count the emails, tweets, comments, and yes blog posts that have done emotional violence to other people, many of which I wish I had written differently or toned down.  But it's more than just the rhetoric.  If you do not believe that you, as a human being, can be driven to violence like this you are lying to yourself.  I can't think of a worse lies, at this moment, than those you make to yourself.  Here's where I can finally get into specifics.   

There already have been and there will continue to be countless media reports delving into the life and motivations of alleged 22-year-old shooter Jared Lee Loughner.  The emerging consensus seems to be that Jared Lee Loughner was a "madman", incapable of rational political thought. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of trying to determine the motivations of another person when we can hardly determine our own motivations for doing the things we do; this characterization of Loughner as a "madman" is a comforting way to delude ourselves into thinking that he's not connected to us. 

To put it simply, you are lying to yourself if you think that a character like Loughner isn't a manifestation of something we all have in us.  Another way to put this is that this idea of Loughner as a madman is used to dehumanize him in the same way that Loughner had to dehumanize his victims before he shot them.  There is a reason why humanity's greatest storytellers often use "mad" people to reveal the deepest truths about ourselves.  I say this not to put Loughner on a pedestal.  His alleged actions deserve the harshest condemnations we can muster.  The only way that I truly feel that we can condemn him, though, is if we acknowledge our own culpability in horrific acts like these.

I could continue on this tangent, but there is so much else to try and make sense out of in this horrific shooting.  Up to this point, it would be fair to criticize me for spreading the blame for this tragedy so thin as to render us all blameless.  After laying this necessary foundation, allow me to try and put this violence into context. 

The violence on Saturday deserves the attention it is getting in the media because it was a threat to the core relationship of our democracy: the relationship between a Representative and her constituents.  As far as I can tell, the primary target was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).  For those that aren't familiar with the details Rep. Giffords was holding the first "Congress On Your Corner" event of the year.  A description of the event from the press release is as follows:

"Congress on Your Corner" allows residents of Arizona's 8th Congressional District to meet their congresswoman one-on-one and discuss with her any issue, concern or problem involving the federal government.
Press Release (7 January 2011)
According to media reports the alleged shooter, Loughner, first met Rep. Giffords at a "Congress On Your Corner" event just like the one that was supposed to be held on Saturday in 2007.  The question he asked her in 2007 was "What is government if words have no meaning?"  The answer he received to his question didn't seem to satisfy him and that put him on a trajectory which transformed his democratic participation in 2007 into democratic destruction in 2011.  Thankfully, after having a bullet enter and exit her brain, Rep. Giffords is still alive.

It would be a mistake to identify the other victims as mereley collateral damage to the targetting of Rep. Giffords.  U.S. District Judge John Roll, and Rep. Giffords' Director of Community Outreach, Gabe Zimmerman, were precisely the sorts of political figures expected to be in attendance at an event like this.  The other victims, one of which I will get to later, as well as those injured and even the witnesses to this tragedy will be scarred for life, always thinking twice about going to events like this, which, again, are the core of a functioning democracy.   

How did we get to this point?  Why is violence now corroding the fundamental relationships at the core of the oldest continuous democracy on Earth?  These are some of the questions we all have to ask ourselves.  We also have a responsibility to come up with our own best answers and act on them.  The U.S. has been here before, and the country I was born and raised in, Guatemala, is still there.  Does it have something to do with out political rhetoric?  That's a small part of it.  Would better gun control laws have stopped the shooter?  Perhaps.  I hope we can all realize that those questions and answers are disgracefully simple in the wake of a tragedy of a magnitude such as this.  What follows is the beginning of my answer, which is probably just as woefully inadequate for those reading this.  That's why we all have a responsibility to come up with our own answers and act on them. 

It would be a mistake to allow this violence to be cause for further fear than the public is already deluged in.  All the statistics I've seen suggest that violent crime has been declining significantly in the U.S. for some time now.  I think Benjamin Franklin said it best in 1755: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."  I hope to God the political reaction to this isn't to cut off access to our political representatives during events like those Rep. Giffords was holding, and I hope that individuals don't cut themselves off further from the world than they already have. 

Recognizing that violent crime is on the decline, I do think it's important to put the violence in Tuscon in context.  People can accuse me of reaching too far here, but I attribute much of the excesses of this political moment to the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Those of us in the pro-migrant movement were all bracing for immediate ugliness as a reaction to economic desperation, but the reaction was delayed.  I think we really started to feel it's force during political debates like the one over health care reform and the implementation of SB1070.  Am I saying that the policy differences in those debates were illegitimate?  No, but I am saying that the intensity was magnified by economic desperation. 

Within that broader global context, I think it's important to put Arizona into context, specifically Rep. Giffords 8th Congressional district which is bordered by Mexico.  Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) represents the 7th Congressional district which accounts for the rest of Arizona's border with Mexico.  I don't think it's a coincidence that both Rep. Grijalva and Rep. Giffords were the targets of some of the harshest threats and vandalism during the healthcare debate and the debate over SB1070. 

Nativists, classically, will interpret the violence in both Rep. Grijalva's and Rep. Giffords' districts as the direct result of a migrant invasion from Mexico.  This hateful interpretation confuses the symptoms with the disease.  Some interpret that disease, or the root cause of migration, to be available jobs for migrants and lax employer enforcement against unauthorized migrants in the U.S., which is only slightly less myopic than the nativist interpretation.  The root cause of the problems associated with migration is and has always been global inequity.  The solution has always been to move towards a world where people migrate out of want, not out of need.  Put more simply, we need to give people more opportunities in migrant sending nations.  That is the real solution.  Anyone who is serious about dealing with U.S. immigration policy, or immigration policy anywhere in the world for that matter, ignores that truth to the detriment of us all. 

The starkest exhibitions of global inequity almost always occur at national borders.  The border between U.S. and Mexico is one of the worst behind only a few other examples in the world.  Most mainstream economists consider inequality necessary for productivity, but extreme inequality leads to some pretty horrible things.  Dr. Paul Farmer, who became famous after a book was written about his efforts to provide health care to the poor of Haiti, is one of the best at illuminating the effects of inequality.  A public health guru, he identifies areas with the most inequality, national borders being among best examples, as being the most susceptible to the spread of disease.  Disease, of course ruins everyone's productivity whether they're rich or poor, and is just the beginning of the sorts of malaise that inequality inflicts upon the general populous.

I could go on, but before I bore people that have read up to this point, I will say that it is within the context of these two trends of global economic recession and global inequity at the border, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual violence that comes along with it, that we can start getting into more individual specifics.

Again, the shooting of Rep. Giffords and others deserves attention because it is a direct threat to democracy.  It would be a mistake, however, to identify this as separate from other acts of political violence that have occurred in Arizona more broadly, and Pima County, specifically.  The National Day Labor Organizing Network has put together an interactive history of Arizona's political violence from 1987 to the present:

The act of political violence that was still fresh in my mind as I learned of the Giffords shooting is listed in this graphic, the assassination of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father Raul "Junior" Flores.  People are quick to dismiss alleged shooter Jared Loughner as a politically incoherent "madman" but the same can't be said for Shawna Forde, of the Minuteman Civil Defense Core, who is in the late stages of criminal proceedings for planning and carrying out those assassinations.  I wrote about this at length when I defended my successful attempt to get Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, uninvited from speaking at Harvard University.  Immigration Clearinghouse has been providing the most sustained coverage of these murders in the pro-migrant sanctuarysphere.

While it's easier to try and disconnect Jared Loughner from the climate of hate, it's almost impossible to do the same with Shawna Forde.  She was a spokeswoman for the nativist movement, and an acquaintance to many of its leading figures.  Her acts are directly traceable to the dehumanizing rhetoric against migrants which is often parroted on the airwaves and at the highest levels of government.  Pundits like Jack Shafer at Slate who defend this dehumanizing rhetoric are right about one thing: now is not the time to pour cold water on the hot heads, it was long ago, before the death of Brisenia Flores. 

The assassination of Brisenia Flores is just one of the many individual political acts of violence that have occurred in the climate of hate that has arisen in Arizona as a result of so many factors, some of which I've listed here.  I, of course, think the dehumanization of migrants through words like "illegal" has played a big role in creating a climate whereby someone like Jared Loughner could exist.  If, at this point, some of my reflections are inspiring the same sort of frustration in you that initial commentaries on these shootings inspired in me, let me end on one last meditation before I give you a chance to respond. 

I thought almost immediately of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores when I heard about the Giffords shooting because I soon heard about the death of 9-year-old Christina Green.  There aren't words to describe the tragedy that is the death of this innocent, just as was true for Brisenia Flores.  The significance of Green's death is enormous.  I can't imagine how many mothers will think twice, now, before sending their promising young daughters to meet a Congresswoman like this.  I've already reflected on how killing a young girl just elected to their elementary student council, who was taking part in the act of meeting her Represenative, is a direct threat to participatory democracy. 

The fact that Christian Green was born on September 11, 2001, though, and was chosen as "one of the 50 "Faces of Hope" representing children from 50 states who were born on Sept. 11." makes the significance of this event incalculable.  This is where I'm forced to quote one of my favorite contemporary essays on Catholicism: 

Like a pebble cast into a pond, our every action ripples out toward the edges, reaching farther than we intended, touching what we do not even know, for good and for ill. It all either means nothing, or it means everything.

As a Catholic, I believe it means everything.
Elizabeth Scalia - National Public Radio (2 April 2010)
Forgive me if I've lost you at this point but what I'm saying is that the interweaving significance of this tragic event either means nothing to you or it means everything.  To me, it means everything.

To summarize, we all bear some responsibility for this violence.  Anyone who dismisses that should be precluded from any serious commentary on this tragic event.  Jared Loughner wasn't an isolated "madman," he was a manifestation of our times and of a darkness that is present in each of us.  Anyone who denies that is lying to themselves.  How did we get to the point where violence is directly threatening the oldest continuous democracy on the planet?  There are multiple answers to that question and we all have a duty to come up with our own answer and act on it. 

My personal answer is that this is a volcanic eruption whose origins were the rumblings of an economic recession, global inequity, and increasing violence along with hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric in a state, Arizona, that is particularly susceptible to all of these factors and much more. It would be fair to critique me as reading far too deeply into this tragedy, but this had a deep impact on me.  As I said, the varying significances of this event can either mean nothing or everything to you, and to me, they mean everything. 

If you're reading this to mean that Jared Loughner was moved by economic recession and global inequity to kill people, you're interpreting me wrong.  What I'm saying is that tragedies like this have greater significance than any one of us can hope to ever know.  This post is my own feeble attempt to discern the truth and I encourage you to come up with your own.  I would ask you to leave a comment if you have a different interpretation, but the comments are currently down, so I encourage you to email me or tweet me with your thoughts if you have any and would like to share them.      

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on January 11, 2011 1:19 AM.

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