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Arizona and an Opportunity for Dialogue…or Not

If you’ve been perusing this blog awhile, you might not expect what you’re about to read.

Like every national tragedy, the horrific shootings in Arizona last weekend have led to instant analysis of the broader picture—especially what this says about us, our laws, and the remedies required. A groundswell of voices is calling for dialogue, for reaching across divides, for “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” More stridently, pundits like Gary Hart have explicitly blamed our toxic public discourse for Jared Loughner’s actions.

Naturally, as someone who cares deeply about dialogue, I would join that groundswell in a heartbeat. Right?

Would that I could.

Look, I am always delighted to see civil, compassionate dialogue get the support it deserves. I think the president hit the right note in his Tucson speech: this tragedy can serve as a catalyst to re-examine our actions and behave more civilly. But precisely because I care about dialogue, I don’t want to connect it causally to the horror in Arizona. Not yet, anyway.

Why not? First consider the evidence—or, more to the point, the lack thereof. We still know precious little about Loughner. What we do know points to serious mental imbalance at the root of his actions. Almost nothing connects him directly with our scorched-earth public discourse. Any connection we make, therefore, is tenuous at best, at least right now, until more evidence comes in.

Consider too our emotional state. Simply put, we are a nation in shock. If you have ever experienced shock, you know it is impossible to think straight. Same deal here.

Authentic dialogue is about clarity, a quest to uncover truth wherever possible, a “listening together” to grasp what the situation is saying to us. By its very nature, this kind of dialogue—whether among friends, between partisans, or across the blogosphere—takes time: time to reflect, time to build on one another’s perspectives, time for new facts to emerge.

Yes, we do need to restore civil dialogue to our public square. The effort to foster it should proceed regardless of any connection with the Arizona shootings. In the weeks and months to come, there will be plenty of opportunity to reflect on that connection. But now is not the time. Better to grieve now and reason together later.

One Response to “Arizona and an Opportunity for Dialogue…or Not”

  • Kim Virginia says:

    Quoting George Will in the Washington Post:
    “On Sunday, the Times explained Tucson: ‘It is facile and mistaken to attribute this particular madman’s act directly to Republicans or Tea Party members. But…’ The ‘directly’ is priceless.”

    Combine “directly” with “almost nothing.”

    It sounds like “break it to ‘em gently” language — Sorry, kiddies, there is no Santa Claus. Regretfully, we may not be able to employ this tragic massacre to defame particular politicians or practices that we deplore.

    That’s the bad news. The good news is, all the evidence is not in, so let’s not extinguish hope. Further evidence may arise that will allow us to exploit this tragedy to serve our agenda.

    You say that we know “precious little” about Loughner when in fact we know quite a lot. The kid is 22 and apparently he’s lived in the same town in the same house with his parents all his life. (At 22, no one has that much of a history, and what little history Loughner has appears to be fairly transparent).

    The initial investigation has already uncovered an array of documents and web posts, school and police records, combined with firsthand accounts from friends, neighbors, teachers and classmates, as well as the latest: photos of Loughner posing with his gun, wearing a g-string.

    Are we expecting to uncover that Loughner was a sophisticated undercover Tea Party operative (assuming that the Tea Party’s political goals could be served by having Gabby Giffords shot in the head and by attacking a crowd of random bystanders), and the whole “mentally imbalanced” pose is a ruse to throw off investigators?

    Any connection we make right now is “tenuous at best”? Let’s “wait until the evidence comes in”?

    Who’s on trial here, anyway?

    What evidence do we have to support a “tenuous” connection? And what evidence are we anticipating to support a substantive one?

    What evidence do I have that Loughner even exists, or that Gabrielle Giffords was even attacked? Maybe the whole thing is a hoax. Maybe it’s a vast right wing conspiracy to muddy the waters and make Sarah Palin look like a victim. Hey, I’ve seen “Wag the Dog.” A winsome politician married to an astronaut, a federal judge, an adorable nine year old student council rep? You can’t convince me that this whole incident is not a Hollywood production and Gabrielle Giffords is not alive and well and sequestered on some remote island in the South Pacific.

    Anything’s possible.

    For that matter, how do I know that I even exist? Am I a butterfly dreaming that I’m a person, or am I person dreaming that I’m a butterfly?

    What is government, if words have no meaning? Maybe that’s the question we all need to be asking ourselves in the wake of this tragic event.

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