[Remarks to Students after a moment of silence, 1.12.11]
On Saturday, our hometown Tucson was struck hard by an individual acting without conscience, without rationality, and possibly without sanity. This terrible strike hit us at our community’s most sensitive place: not only did it harm and kill many fine, fine people, it hit us in the heart of our body politic.
Since the ancient Athenians conceived of and built the polis, a democratic state composed of citizens governing themselves in the open air by way of free and spirited discourse and debate, this idea of the body politic has been our civilization’s ideal, our shining city on a hill.
Saturday morning, in front of a Tucson Safeway at which many of us shop regularly, an elected official and her staff came to talk in the open air with Tucson citizens, acting out our nation’s and our civilization’s ideals. In a scene that ancient Athenians would have immediately recognized, a diverse set of Tucsonans came together to discuss their views, argue their opinions, and express their hopes for our nation– in other words, to talk politics. Senior citizens came to discuss their social security, a federal judge to discuss the future of the judiciary in Arizona, and a young child who had recently been elected to her student council to meet her role model, preparing herself to join the body politic as an adult.
When this terrible attack came, it came at a moment when they were, all of them, together, acting out our nation’s highest political ideals: to discuss and debate ideas about our society respectfully—and this is why the strike, was so especially devastating even also to those of us who were not immediately present and did not necessarily know anyone hurt.
This was not only a group of people attacked– and let’s be clear, it was a very fine group of people attacked, truly wonderful people– it was also our ideal of the polis, the acting out and practice of true democracy—politicians, judges, and citizens, adults and children, gathered together in a public square, in an event called Congress on Your Corner– which was attacked.
Because of that, I think that we all have, as citizens and as people concerned and committed to that ideal, a special responsibility to respond with a renewed commitment to live and fulfill that ideal.
Jon Stewart spoke passionately on this topic Monday evening:
I refuse to give in to that feeling of despair.
Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take this opportunity, and the loss of these incredible people and the pain that their loved ones are going through right now, wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take this moment to make sure that the world we are creating now isn’t better than the one we previously lost.
Where do we begin? I think we must begin where every act of reform and improvement begins: we must begin with ourselves, we must become the change we seek.
I read this response to Saturday on a blog I admire, by a fellow Arizonan educator, Jeff Delp:
All too frequently, we live in a world of one– concerned with our own well being and giving only fleeting thought to how our actions impact others. The interactions we have with others–on a daily basis–do make a difference, for better or for worse.
Instead of living in a “world of one,” let’s all be certain that our daily actions reflect the civility and kindness we want to see in the world.
So let us begin by seeking to be kind, gentle, and compassionate to all those with whom we share our hometown of Tucson. I am delighted to hear that some St. Gregory advisory groups are taking the initiative to collect cans for our Food Bank, in exactly this spirit.
But beyond that, we must seek to strengthen our polis– as Jon Stewart, says, we must make it a better one than the one it was before this shattering event. We must not withdraw but go out into our community and be ourselves participants in it: we must talk politics, take action and work to make our community stronger.
The work of our diversity club this fall in organizing a downtown rally is a shining example, not necessarily because your views were the correct ones but because you exercised your democratic voices and democratic privileges so beautifully, speaking your mind, passionately voicing strong criticism, in a way that was peaceful, civil, and respectful: the ideal of the polis. Ancient Athenians would have been proud to witness it.
Whether it be through the diversity club, JSA, Mock Trial, or student government, or so many other vehicles available to you, the right response to an attack on our civil society is to work harder and do more to contribute to our civil society.
This may still be primarily a moment for reflection, for repose, for prayers, mourning, and grieving. But we must take care to ensure that our subsequent moments be different; they mustn’t be times for silence or indifference, for if it they are, this terrible and terrifying attack on our civil society shall have too lasting and damaging an effect. In our schools, we must work harder to promote and develop the active practice of political talk: argumentation that is both passionate and respectful.
If we are to use this moment as the spur it should be to affirm, perpetuate, and uplift our ideal of the polis, we should heed the words of a distinguished practitioner of civil society, the type of public official who holds regularly events like Congress on Your Corner: our own hometown US Representative, Gabrielle Giffords:
We know that silence equals consent when atrocities are committed against innocent men, women, and children. We know that indifference equals complicity when bigotry, hatred and intolerance are allowed to take root. And we know that education and hope are the most effective ways to combat ignorance and despair.
Go forth with your education, and your hope, to be vigorous participants in our civil society, uplifting our democratic polis.