A little over one year ago, Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot at a constituent meeting in a grocery store parking lot in Tuscon, Ariz. 13 of the victims were injured, and six died—nine-year-old Christina Green, Superior Court judge John Roll, Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, and retirees Dorwin Stoddard, Dorothy Morris, and Phyllis Schneck.
Four days afterward, a memorial was held at the University of Arizona. In his memorial address, President Obama both lamented the nation’s loss and celebrated the lives of the departed. The speech was easily the best of his presidency to date. Yet one passage, upon reading it one year later, struck me as strange: “We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame—but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.”
Presidents do not usually talk about love as life’s highest goal. From their policies, it would seem their highest priority is to increase America’s greatness, if not to only improve their own legacy. If the president had talked about mutual love during this week’s State of the Union, for example, surely he would be ridiculed for displaying weakness. Such talk would be unbecoming for a president, and it would become a political talking point: “We have a president who’s more interested in loving one another than fighting terrorism.”
This fact leads me to wonder how cynical our country has become. A dismally small number of us, aside from the families and friends of the victims, still feel affected by the events of January 8, 2011, which is understandable but also disheartening. In today’s world, people cannot be expected to feel—and continue indefinitely to feel—personally affected by every tragic happening. Moving on, in the long run, is beneficial to our nation’s collective psyche. Yet the shooting in Tucson was, to most of us, not a personal loss but an emotional one, at least in the political sense—the thought that a congresswoman could not meet her constituents in the parking lot of a Safeway without 19 casualties is deeply unnerving.
The alleged assassination attempt was not motivated by right wing media or tea party rhetoric; it was the action of a single deeply disturbed man. Still, even if no one is legally to blame, this attempt on Giffords’s life demonstrates that, even in the political arena, each politician deserves respect. Personal attacks during campaigns only yield hatred and polarization, which is detrimental both to policymaking and to the trust among people. Too often, our beliefs divide us. Campaigns invoke the idea of “taking back America,” as if the incumbent’s version of America is completely contradictory and irreconcilable with the challenger’s idea for the United States.
After the tragedy, those active in the political arena recognized and attempted to correct this revolting environment in which we exchange ideas. Republicans and Democrats sat together during the State of the Union, and Keith Olbermann apologized if his rhetoric had in any way inadvertently encouraged violence. As is evident by this election cycle, Republicans and Democrats alike have forgotten what they realized only months before—the vitriol and personal attacks are back, and there are no signs of abating.
Public figures talk about values, which are supposedly principles that guide decision-making and comprise a person’s moral core. Too often, however, people discuss a person’s values as a means of casting him or her as inferior—less moral, less generous, less tolerant, or less reasonable. The irony in this is that, in many cases, the differences are not nearly as vast as they seem. Democrats and Republicans diverge a great deal more on issues of policy than they do on their objectives. Each side largely wants to improve citizens’ well-being. Barack Obama does not want a socialist nanny state; Mitt Romney does not want to return to Gilded Age decadence. People share more in common than is initially clear.
While watching Obama’s memorial address, I was also struck by the crowd’s cheers. I understand that people respond to death in different ways, but I imagined the mood would have been more somber at a memorial service for those whose lives were so senselessly and prematurely ended, and that the crowd wouldn’t be screaming and cheering while the president mourned. I realized, however, that the crowd was cheering for the lives and legacies for those who died. They were cheering for Green’s childhood innocence, for Roll’s dedication, and for all of their commitment and all of their love.
In this age of gridlock, partisanship, and pessimism, Americans do not often have a reason to cheer. This week, though, in a rare moment of unity, Congress jointly commended Giffords’s dedication to her office and progress on her rehabilitation. Like Congress, I hope we can all temporarily recall the tragedy of that day, if only to remember that we are more alike than we often think.