To end the nightmare, one must first wake up

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2011

Well, that was one of the more depressing Saturday evenings I’ve had in a while. As I’m not a US citizen, I’m not going to get deeply embroiled in the political debate rippling out from the Giffords shooting, except to say that if there’s one thing I think both sides should take away from this deeply saddening development, it’s that you’ve had a little warning about just how close you are to ripping your country apart down the middle – not along a neat geographical line, but along countless fracture points and tears in every city, town, street and community, in every state.

Republicans and Democrats alike claim to be “doing what’s best for America”; I think perhaps it’s high time everyone sat the hell down and decided to define what – or more importantly who – America is. Because it’s you – and your appointed masters seem to have conveniently forgotten that component of the whole representational-democracy gig. It’s looking a lot like Loughner isn’t a self-appointed agent for either side, but to see how easily and quickly both sides instantly claimed the shooting as an operation of their opponents was terrifying. No, violent political rhetoric and polarised partisanship isn’t the whole story… but it’s a damn big component of it. And unless you all push for them to stop it, it’s just going to carry on.

I tweeted as the news was breaking:

This is why bipolar party politics is one of our civilisational millstones; if people will fight over sports, they’ll kill over a country.

John Scalzi echoed that sentiment with greater depth on Sunday:

And now is a fine time to ask whether the Gingrich strain of rhetoric is past its sell-by date. I think it is. I think it encourages bad politics; it’s a primary tool in making the manner in which people think of politics in the United States the same as they think about football games. […] what’s good for the 10-Qs of publicly-traded entertainment companies who happen to own cable news networks and newspapers or the ratings of radio stars and reality shows isn’t necessarily what’s good for the actual political health of the nation.

I wish people were smart enough to recognize this. If one result of this shooting is that we start to think about it more, it’ll be a thin silver lining to a very dark cloud. Even if the shooting eventually turns out to be unrelated to the current state of political rhetoric in the country.

Implicit in that wish (or so it seems to me) is the desire to not see the exact opposite – namely political haymaking off the back of a tragedy, as neatly satirised by this post-9/11 essay reblogged at BoingBoing:

Many people will use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to put through a political agenda other than my own. This tawdry abuse of human suffering for political gain sickens me to the core of my being. Those people who have different political views from me ought to be ashamed of themselves for thinking of cheap partisan point-scoring at a time like this. In any case, what this tragedy really shows us is that, so far from putting into practice political views other than my own, it is precisely my political agenda which ought to be advanced.

The saddest thing about that essay is how many times since 9/11 we’ve heard exactly that argument, delivered from both sides of the imaginary fence in almost every country in the world. And it’s that imaginary fence that’s the problem, the whole Red vs. Blue thing. If we continue to believe that we can reduce the complex challenges of global civilisation to a zero-sum game between two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive choices of ideology, we shouldn’t be surprised when people start taking extreme steps for the side they identify with.

If you really need a fence, how about one that separates those who value ideology over human dignity from those who’re willing to accept that a rising tide should float all boats? By way of illustration, another post from BoingBoing shows a moment of non-partisan unity against extremist terror.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

I was particularly lifted by this paragraph:

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Now, by way of an experiment, let’s just change a few words:

“This is not about us and them. We are one. This was an attack on Humanity as a whole, and I am standing with my fellow Humans because the only way things will change on this planet is if we come together.”

Some of you are probably shaking your heads at my naive idealism right now; to you I ask – with a genuine curiosity to know your answer – what it is that makes you feel you have more of a right to a life of peace and sufficiency than anyone else who walks the face of the earth? If you can recognise your own desire for those things, how can you fail to recognise those same desires as they manifest in the vast majority of people everywhere, no matter what colour their skin is, no matter what god (or lack thereof) they choose to believe in? Perhaps you think that people who believe different things to yourself have been brainwashed or stirred up by clerics or politicians; if so, then look to the motes in your own eye, and wonder where they might have come from.

The Greek root of the word “politics” comes from the word for “citizen” or “civilian”; I think it’s time we reasserted that meaning. We are all citizens of one planet, with nowhere to run to. Either we all share it, or we fight to the death for the right to rule the ruins.

I believe that’s what political pundits like to refer to as “a no-brainer”.