The Politics of Personal Destruction

— Rabbi Carl Choper, President of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennyslvania

Many voices are being raised, expressing shock and dismay at the recent shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Arizona – and certainly those voices should be raised.  In addition to the horror of the act itself, physical violence is the greatest internal threat to any working democracy.  If people cannot feel safe voicing their opinions and participating in civic life then democracy ceases to work.  We cannot fully know the shooter’s motivation or frame of mind, but we all must acknowledge that this terrible act has been long in coming.

More after the jump.
It seems to me that societies change more likely in a step-by-step process than all at once.  I came to that realization as a teenager after listening to stories of my grandmother’s experiences in Germany in the 1930’s.  As she was telling me about an incident that happened in 1938, she mentioned in passing that she was pushing her daughter (my mother) in a baby carriage along the street because Jews were not allowed in the parks.  I interrupted her right there, asking her to explain what she meant.  “Of course, ” she said. “Jews were not allowed to walk in the parks.  Signs were posted at park entrances reading ‘No dogs or Jews.'”   It was at that moment that it occurred to me that a society was not likely to go from tolerance to oppression, or civility to violence,  without intermediate steps.  Therefore, we should always be alert to those intermediate steps.

I recall over a decade ago, in the late 1990’s that we began hearing the phrase “the politics of personal destruction.”  At the time, President Clinton was being demonized, investigated and excoriated for sexual misdeeds, and for many other allegations about which all investigators lost interest the moment he left the White House.  What stood out to many at the time was the viciousness of the ongoing attacks on the very person of the White House occupant (and his wife) throughout the eight years that the man William Jefferson Clinton was in office. It was noted at the time that his opponents seemed to be trying to destroy him personally as well as defeat him politically.

In the years since we have seen a continuation of this sort of personal demonization for political purposes.  Barack Obama is persistently portrayed as a liar and a fraud (for claiming to have been born in Hawaii), a foreign infidel (what is meant when he is called a Muslim) and a threat to the strength and moral fiber of the country (what is meant by those calling him a socialist).  All of this fed into the frenzy that was whipped up by his opponents, especially around the healthcare issue, that led to physical attacks upon congressional offices by the end of 2009.  Add to that the increased push in our society for universal gun access and we have a volatile mix.

To summarize this in terms of baby-steps, we as a society have watched our political system descend into character assassination by 1999, and then violent attacks upon property by 2009, and now acts of murderous violence in 2011.

Again, we may not know precisely the full motivation of the murderer.  But, if nothing else, this should serve as a warning to us all about the effects of those who would denigrate the humanity of their political opponents.

We must all pray for the well-being of Gabrielle Giffords and her family, and for all those others who have been killed, wounded or emotionally destroyed by this horrendous act.

We must also pray for our country.

Tucson Rampage’s Dangerous Combination: Extremism and Guns

— Bryan Miller

In the wake of the devastating shooting rampage of Saturday in Tucson, Arizona, Heeding God’s Call, the faith-based movement to prevent gun violence, expressed sadness at the predictable loss of life and damage to society, and called for citizens and the faith community to ‘step up’ and take the country from those who would use the deadly mix of guns and political extremism to endanger democracy and sell guns.

Rabbi Linda Holzman of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Philadelphia said: “I call on all of my sisters and brothers of all faiths to take courage, get off your couches and out of your homes to bring this country to a place of safety and sanity where persons like the Tucson shooter cannot easily acquire guns and where there is no tolerance for those who would use the deadly mix of guns and extremism to seek power or disrupt our democracy.  It is high time the faithful in this country said no to extremists and the gun industry and lobby.  We can no longer allow their narrow single-mindedness and selfishness to dictate policies and laws.”

See statement by State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia) after the jump.
State Representative Babette Josephs

State Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Phila., is expressing her horror, shock and outrage at Saturday’s attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which wounded her and 19 others at a community legislative event in Tucson, Ariz., leaving six dead and Giffords in critical condition.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to all of the victims and their families, including Representative Giffords,” Josephs said. “This is a terrible tragedy for them, for Arizona and for this country.

“But this incident reminds us that there can be consequences to speech that makes it seem OK to physically attack people for having a different viewpoint. I fear that many extremist talk radio and TV commentators do not make that distinction. People who are unstable are likely to take this rhetoric of violence as permission to act. And in states with weak gun control laws, that permission can be deadly. This is not a First Amendment issue, but one of self-censorship, self-restraint and the assumption of responsibility.

“A great friend of mine, the late Larry Frankel, championed the First Amendment, but even he said the First Amendment does not give us the right to act like idiots,” she said. Josephs pointed to the oft-noted map distributed by former Alaska governor Sara Palin with cross hair marks on certain legislative districts, including Giffords’.

“One cannot shout ‘fire’ in a crowded room without cause because of what it may incite. Responsible individuals self-edit their comments in the same way.”

Josephs also said she believes that Saturday’s shooting puts more light on the issue of responsible firearm laws.

“There are many instances in which women are the intended victims of troubled young men. Who will be next? Pennsylvania is similar to Arizona in having weak gun laws. Now is the time to reconsider enacting responsible gun-safety laws,” Josephs said. “It is up to the politicians to temper their extreme discourse and enact responsible gun-safety laws.”

Reactions to the Tucson Tragedy

Announcement on the Pima County Republican website promoting an event last June organized by Republican challenger Jesse Kelly. There is nothing wrong with holding a gun-themed campaign event, but the way they worded the ad is just sick and encourages borderline personalities to engage in this kind of violence.

Bonnie Squires reached out to a number of Jewish leaders for their comments on the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen other people who were shot outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona.  

Here are their comments.

Betsy R. Sheerr,  former President of JAC-PAC, a pro-choice, pro-Israel advocacy organization:

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Congresswoman Giffords since she first ran for office six years ago. Even then, we knew were in the presence of a rising star: knowledgeable, passionate about public service, unafraid to take a bold stand politically, and genuinely warm and approachable. Supporting her candidacy has been gratifying: she is a devoted Member of Congress and a thoughtful, bright woman.

This tragic shooting is an affront to all Americans. Perhaps, just perhaps, it will shock our country into reexamining our accepted standards of civility and the ways we permit extremism and hatred to fester in our midst.

Pennsylvania State Representation Josh Shapiro (D-Abington and Upper Dublin)

The attack on Rep. Giffords was an attack against all who serve and our democracy. My thoughts and prayers go to each of those injured and the families of those slain.  

Our country was founded on the promise and hope of words from common people. We need to restore a sense of civility and purpose in our public discourse by encouraging all points of view be heard and consensus be sought.  

Marcia Balonick and Gail Yamner, Executive Director and President of the Jewish Women’s Political Action Committee (JACPAC)

Yesterday Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), was shot while at an event known as “Congress-on-your-Corner” in a grocery store parking lot in Tucson, AZ. Eighteen other people, including six members of her staff, were also shot. There were six fatalities, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old child. Giffords survived surgery at University Medical Center in Tucson. Although she is in critical condition, her surgeon stated he is as “optimistic about her recovery as it is possible to be” given the extent of her injuries.  

The shooting of Congresswoman Giffords has caused shock and dismay in many quarters. One of 27 Jewish members of Congress, she is a special friend to JAC. Marcia Balonick, executive director, said the JAC contingent that attended the Congressional swearing-in ceremonies on Wednesday attended a reception in her honor. “I met and spoke with her mother and we talked about how special she is. Her mother told me how lucky she was to have such a wonderful daughter and that life was ‘always an adventure with Gabby.’ The attempted murder of any member of Congress would be tragic to me, but this is personal.”    

In 2009 Giffords spoke for JAC at the Detroit chapter’s membership event. She was extremely well received. Lisa Lis, chair of that event, also considers the shooting a personal matter. “This is truly heartbreaking. She is a bright star in the Congress, passionate about bringing positive changes to the country. When she spoke at our meeting, we were so impressed by her dedication to public service. She was genuinely approachable and touched everyone’s heart.”

Gabrielle Giffords is a positive force on issues of concern to JAC. She is a staunch advocate for Israel, reproductive rights and separation of religion and state. Her door is always open to JAC and the PAC’s relationship with her is very close.

She stood on principle when it came to health care reform even though it could have cost her her re-election. As a member of the Armed Services committee, she is well respected and well liked even by her political opponents. Gail Yamner, JAC President, said “You cannot help but like her. She is a warm, caring woman who wants only to serve her country. She is an incredible woman who believes in an America that is for everyone.”

We do not fully know the shooter’s motivation, but Arizona’s laws that permit easy access to guns make it too easy to commit a heinous crime such as this one. His violent act is likely to have a chilling effect on the public’s access to elected officials. American democracy is ill-served by a violent gun culture and by security barriers erected between the people and their government. Neither is consistent with Gabby’s modus operandi.

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is a personal affront, an affront to the Jewish community, to her Arizona constituents and to the country.

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL 20)

I am sickened by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, her staff, and others today in Arizona.
“Gabby is one of my closest friends and my thoughts and prayers are with Mark, Gabby’s parents, and their family as they struggle to get through this unimaginable tragedy. I pray for her full recovery and the recovery of the other victims of this horrific act of senseless violence.

Anyone who knows Gabby, knows that she is one of the nicest people you will meet. I’ve never heard her raise her voice in anger or express anything but optimism for our future and our nation.

Just two days after she stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and read from the 1st Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing free speech, she was shot while speaking with her constituents. The interaction of a Member of Congress with the people they represent is one of the greatest tenets of our democracy. I know how strongly Gabby feels about being accessible to the people that she represents.

I know from our many hours spent together that Gabby ran for Congress for one reason, to make America a better place and after her recent reelection, she made the following statement: ‘Our country must be strong enough to solve problems and that means we must learn how to work together again. Our children are counting on us.’

To her staff and the family members of her staff and Judge John Roll killed in this shooting I extend my deep sympathy and prayers. No one, not a Member of Congress, nor a dedicated public servant should have to fear for their safety while working to uphold our democracy.

And to the people and family members of the public attacked at this event, you are in my thoughts and prayers. The American public should not have to worry that they will suffer a violent attack while carrying out their right to petition their government.

My husband and I will be praying as hard as we can that Gabby pulls through this and makes a full recovery so she can be the bright light that she has always been to her family and friends.

Nancy Gordon,  Pennsylvania Coordinator, Million Mom March (2000), Co-founder, CeaseFirePA

This a terrible tragedy, but it is not the first and it will not be the last.  Also tragic are the shooting deaths of Chief Judge John Roll, the other victims of this shooting (including a 9-year-old girl), and the 13 Americans, on average, who lose their lives to gun violence every single day.  An effective way to reduce the incidence of gun deaths and injuries would be to restrict access to guns, through meaningful background checks, licensing of gun owners, registration of guns, and a prohibition on civilian ownership of assault weapons.  Most of our legislators have refused to take these steps.  While this shooting was horrifying, anyone who’s been paying attention should not be shocked by it; with over 300,000,000 guns out there in civilian hands, and virtually no regulation of who’s allowed to have them, we are all at risk, all the time.  No wonder that 13 people are killed each day, and almost 300 people are shot and injured every day, according to the Brady Campaign.

Phil Goldsmith, president of CeaseFirePA

It is a terrible tragedy and our prayers are with her and the familes of all the victims. Once again, it demonstrates how easy it is for guns to get in the wrong hands in this nation.

Anti-Defamation League, Arizona Chapter

Phoenix, AZ, January 9, 2011 … The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) today condemned the tragic shooting rampage that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed and wounded more than a dozen innocent bystanders in Tucson, with reports of six dead and 14 wounded.                    
 Miriam Weisman, ADL Arizona Regional Board Chair, and Bill Straus, ADL Arizona Regional Director, issued the following statement:  
      We are shocked by this unconscionable and horrific act of violence against one of our highly respected public servants.  We agree with President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that this was more than an attack on one member of Congress – it is an attack on all public servants and the very fabric of our democracy.

      During her years in the statehouse, Rep. Giffords served on the ADL Arizona Regional Board.  Her affiliation with ADL, which monitors and exposes hate and extremist groups, contributed to her awareness of the nexus between hate ideology and violence.  It is a testament to her dedication to her constituents that despite past threats against her, Rep. Giffords has always been so accessible to the people she represents.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords and the other victims and their families.

ADL remains in contact with law enforcement as investigators endeavor to establish a motive for the attack. It is critical to determine whether the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, acted alone or with others, and whether he was influenced by extremist literature, propaganda or hate speech.  While it is still not clear whether the attack was motivated by political ideology, the tragedy has already led to, as Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik put it, “soul searching” about the connection between incivility and violence. We applaud Sheriff Dupnik’s statements
condemning the volatile nature of political discourse in America and for taking this investigation seriously.

Lynne Honickman, Founder, Moms Against Guns (now merged with CeasefirePA)

It was the worst of times! devastating… unbearably sad…senseless… a beautiful young representative reaching out to her constituency…a child beginning a proud life of service…a judge who had devoted 40 years to our benefit, and many  others who had come together to dialogue for the welfare of all. But, in the way of all evil acts, there is its opposite side, the best in our country will rise above politics and self serving rhetoric -and will demand not only  justice but a new kind of civility that will not tolerate illegal guns, automatic weapons in wrong hands and anyone or anything that jeopardizes our hard fought and hard won freedoms.

We are all heartsick—– but, non-the-less hopeful Americans, praying for Gabby Gifford’s recovery as well as her companions and the families of all those stricken….May G-d Bless them and our country…and keep us all strong and just.

Affiliations are provided for identification purposes only and do not imply endorsement of the organizations indicated.

Jewish Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) Shot

Rep. Giffords recites portion of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the “right of the people peaceably to assemble”.

Marc R. Stanley and Marc Winkelman

We are stunned and horrified by the attack today on Gabby Giffords, Arizona’s first Jewish Congresswoman. Representative Giffords is a courageous and vibrant leader dedicated to advancing the causes and values we care so deeply about. Beyond being an advocate for health care reform and immigration reform, as well as the people of Arizona, she is our close friend. Gabby, those who were murdered and injured, and their families all remain in our thoughts and prayers.

The tragic attack on Representative Giffords, her staff, and citizens participating in the practice of democracy in Arizona is beyond reprehensible. One suspect, now in custody, may be directly responsible for this crime. But it is fair to say – in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric – that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired. Throughout the health care reform debate, we saw an ever-worsening level of political discourse – frequently pointing fingers at Democratic members of Congress who were supposedly directly threatening our country and our way of life. As elections approached, members of Congress increasingly received death threats, even as our public debate became more and more coarse.

Image from showing Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as one of Sarah Palin’s targets.

As we learned in Israel through the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, words – and an eroding public discourse – can have profound consequences. The rhetoric of hate and anger must be banished from our political discourse before the next calamity takes place.

The loss of any life – and the injury of any American – is unacceptable. While we do not yet know exactly what motivated this deranged gunman, improving the tenor of our public debate can only help. It is up to us to act now. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

Video of Rep. Giffords response to vandalism at her office follows the jump.