A single tragedy can change a nation. It can compel citizens to examine and reflect on the world around them. It can force policy-makers to act to make a difference. It can bring a nation together and not just to mourn. It can change political discourse.
This should be our collective wish for our southern neighbours following the latest mass murder in Tucson, Ariz.
A 22-year-old man — armed with a semi-automatic handgun that he legally bought and could legally walk around with under his state’s incredibly lax gun laws — killed six people, including a nine-year-old third-grader, and gravely wounded a congresswoman and 14 other citizens while they participated in a democratic gathering.
Unfortunately, in the days since this shooting, there was reason to question whether the United States would find a way out of its vitriolic political discourse where conservative politics is so intertwined with guns.
More bile, not less
Instead of a collective self-reflection, there has been a vigorous defence of their position by right-wing commentators and politicians and, unfortunately, more vitriol. U.S. President John F. Kennedy once said: “Too often we … enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
In the aftermath of the rampage and massacre in Arizona, a nation mourned and many sought answers. Like the local sheriff who pointed to the growing rage and anger directed at the government from talk-radio commentators and right-wing politicians who freely wield the language of violence and killing in their political discourse.
Such angry political metaphor is not as tolerated in Canadian society, but we, too, can learn from the Arizona shooting given some of
the political discourse during the recent gun registry debate.
Not as heated
But even at its worst, that debate in Canada was a far cry from what has been taking place in the United States. The gun registry debate was, for the most part, a reflection of our society — more tempered with little tolerance for extreme views. Of course in Canada, we do not have the constitutional right to bear arms — a right that in today’s world translates into ownership of semi-automatic weapons that can kill six people in seconds.
Not as usual here
Indeed, many of the arguments used by the gun lobby and the right-wing in the United States are dismissed by Canadians, even Canadians who own guns and may gripe about Canada’s gun control laws, including David Bercuson, a professor of history at the University of Calgary.
In a commentary for The Globe and Mail last week he noted that he agrees with the basic premise that “my freedom to own a gun or shoot at targets does not outweigh society’s right not to have guns as freely available as, say, electric drills. It’s not that many Americans don’t agree with that. The problem is, the gun culture and conservative politics in the United States have merged almost completely.”
Although this latest shooting has led to a renewed debate about U.S. gun laws, at the same time many seek to lay the blame for the tragedy at the feet of the lone “crazed” gunman who, with a semi-automatic handgun, caused so much carnage. This simplistic view lets society off the hook.
Virtually the same arguments were made in Canada when 21 years ago a gunman in Montreal took the lives of 14 young women because he believed them to be feminists. But this was challenged by those who felt society needed to reflect on how such a tragedy could occur and why this hatred of women as expressed through violence was tolerated by our society.
At the time, there had been very little public debate about the issue of violence against women, but this single tragedy and the outrage that followed compelled our country to reflect and to consider that perhaps society, all of us collectively, had a role to play in changing the tolerance of violence against women. It was a healthy and necessary debate to have and it changed our country.
Canadian societal norms changed after Dec. 6, 1989. And our gun laws changed too.
More than isolated incidents
Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar, author and CNN contributor, noted last week that it is too easy to confine the cause of such tragedies or the responsibility for them to individual agents. “Jared Loughner (the alleged gunman) lives in the same society in which (Rush) Limbaugh and I live. He breathes the same air and takes in much of the same political rhetoric. To insist that he was not influenced by that rhetoric is to pretend either that ideas have no effect, or that they somehow magically lose their effectiveness when they enter the brains of the mentally imbalanced.”
Mr. Prothero went on to say in his CNN commentary that “we are all responsible both for what we do and what we say. It is our society in which guns (and excuses) are so readily available. It is our society where civility is so rapidly withering away.”
In the days since the shooting, in addition to Rush Limbaugh and others of his ilk, there are those like Mr. Prothero weighing in on the debate.
Mr. Prothero may be disheartened by the predominant pretense that the Tucson shooter was not influenced by the hateful rhetoric so prevalent in American discourse, but there is hope as long as there is room for reasoned debate and reflection.
There is hope as long as the millions of Americans who want to change things for the better can hold on to their resolve.
There is hope as long as Americans can find a way to do as Abraham Lincoln once asked: “when the occasion is piled high with difficulty… we must rise high with the occasion.”
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column returns Jan. 29.