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The Shootings in Arizona...and Mork From Ork

Image courtesy of The Mudflats
It is hard, as someone who believes absolutely in peace and beauty, to comprehend the shootings in Arizona yesterday, though clearly they were the actions of a seriously disturbed individual or individuals.

But it is also impossible to divorce what happened from the ugly rhetoric that passes for political discourse and commentary in this country - a country I love in my soul, not because it is "better" (or worse) than any other nation, but because it is naturally beautiful, its history, though conflicted, is fascinating, and its people, on a personal level, are mostly very warm and welcoming.

I became a citizen for many of those reasons, and because my wife and young children are American, and events such as yesterday's - or my childhood memories of the political assassinations of John F and Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the 1960s - do not diminish the hope that America offers. Ideally they rekindle the desire for peace and a more civil approach to society and community.

Perhaps the toughest thing to understand for someone born in Britain, as I was, is the alienation so many Americans feel from their government, especially at the federal level but even locally at state and county, even if they participated in electing it...and in electing individuals with lives and families and feelings not so different from their own.

In Britain, there is a "them and us" mentality that is rooted in class and still persists - to create many of the problems that Britain faces as a society itself. Here in the US, "them and us" seems reserved largely for government.

Celebrities and billionaires in America may seem different from "ordinary folk" but they are not generally reviled. Politicians, on the other hand, once elected, seem to morph in the public eye from human beings into aliens from another planet.

President Obama, whom I still admire greatly, despite reservations and disappointments that he has not been able to achieve more as yet, may as well be Mork from Ork (for those who remember Robin Williams' TV alien) - except that people in general liked Mork, whereas those opposed to Obama view him with extraordinary vitriol, fear and hatred.

That "distance" - and distrust - many Americans feel about their government seems particularly odd when many of those who feel the most distrust are also the loudest in proclaiming that America is so much better than the rest of the globe, and is indeed the home of democracy (even though the Greeks developed a form of democracy - not to mention the word itself - twenty-five hundred years ago).

America's political system certainly is not perfect. It is subject far too much to the influence of money and lobbyists - but whether it is the remarkable election of Obama himself or the success of so-called Tea Party candidates more recently, it continues to defy its critics.

However, no matter how much the American extreme right (and I'm thinking Fox News and its ilk, not the still more sinister hate groups identified recently by the Southern Poverty Law Center) may protest, it is very hard to divorce the events in Arizona from the political and cultural climate that individuals such as Sarah Palin and Bill O'Reilly, among others, have created.

The fact that Palin's infamous "crosshairs" Facebook page was taken down so rapidly following the shootings yesterday suggests at least some sense of guilt, even if disguised as political expediency. (You can read Palin aide Rebecca Mansour's rationalization here at the Huffington Post.)

We need a calmer, quieter, more reflective tone in American public, political and even personal life. Silence and stillness are greatly undervalued in this country: the cry for attention is everywhere and whether it's turning on the TV or an iPod, few seem to desire or even believe that they can survive without a constant "soundtrack" to erase their own deepest thoughts.

I still remember the stunning silence that followed the attacks of 9/11, if you stepped outside your home. I was in Los Angeles, and with the skies bereft of airplanes (except for occasional fighters patrolling overhead), and the streets strangely deserted, it was possible to imagine a time when a different rhythm and a quieter tone resonated throughout this land.

That, of course, was a stark and mournful occasion, much as I'm sure Tucson, Arizona, felt yesterday - but sometimes it takes events like those, or on a more intimate level a death in the family, to remind us that life is so much more profound and beautiful than constant noise and activity.

Hopefully yesterday's events will have at least some impact on the public consciousness. Perhaps they might even prompt a recognition of the wisdom of one of my favorite quotations from Buddhist literature:

"Better than a thousand useless words is one single word that gives peace."


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