There has been a lot of skirt-clearing going on in the wake of the shootings in Tucson. Those who have been the most violent in their language are now claiming, equally vociferously, that violent language had nothing–nothing at all–to do with the tragedy.
They assert their First Amendment Rights, insist that any responsibility lies with the unbalanced young man who held the gun–or possibly with the victims, who had come to meet their representative unarmed. If there had only been more guns there! one commentator mourned.
Others portray themselves as victims whose freedoms are in danger of being stripped away. I’m not naming names; I don’t need to. Whether you agree or disagree, you all know who they are.
It is true that the purveyors of hate rhetoric may not bear legal responsibility for Mr. Loughner’s actions. They did not put the gun in his hand. Our laws made it possible for him to not only buy a gun, but to buy a gun and ammunition whose sole function is killing lots of people, fast. Certainly our gun laws as well as our mental health systems need strengthening. But that doesn’t change the fact that since the last presidential election we have been living in a world where not just passionate debate, but incitements to violence have become the order of the day.
Far too many of us have fallen prey to the ugliness and verbal violence, to the vicious mis-characterizations and outright lies that have taken the place of vital, informed debate. And when that atmosphere of violence erupts into gunfire, the proponents of the verbal violence cry “free speech.”
There’s an old, old story, about two brothers. They had religious differences. And one day those differences erupted into violence, and one of the brothers wound up dead. When the murderer was questioned he responded very much as we have seen those on the right responding: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” We are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. Precisely because we live in a nation where we have certain bedrock rights–the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to worship whatever divinity we choose in the manner of our choosing, the right to equality before the law–you know these, and if you don’t, you should–we bear responsibility for how we exercise those rights.
We are responsible for how our actions shape the world we all share. We are responsible if we help create a world where violence is not only tolerated, but sanctioned and incited. If we have helped to undermine the structures built to shelter all of us, we bear partial responsibility when those structures collapse. We are our brothers’ keepers.