When the former Congresswoman arrived before the Senate yesterday, it became one of the most deeply moving events in our recent history.
By Tim Connor
On January 7, 2011 I was already of the view that every conscientious American is required to struggle deeply with being an American.
I write this as the grandson of a man who survived the deprivations of the Great Depression to become a drill boat captain for the Panama Canal Company. The poor, under-educated young man from New York did well and launched his son, my father, on a path where my dad got to experience his American dream. So this is not the rant of someone ungrateful at the circumstances of my own success and how the American dream, so to speak, made it possible.
But I’m also an adult who was once a gangly kid building forts in the vines and chasing iguanas on a jungle hillside above the parade field of the School of the Americas. In case you’ve forgotten, or don’t know, the School of Americans is where we trained so many oppressors and murderers of peasants, reformers, and priests throughout Latin America before the Panamanians forced the “school” to retreat to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. A Panamanian newspaper had dubbed the place the “School of Assassins.”
There are so many great Americans who do so many creative and amazing things here and abroad. And then there are those like the recent Vice President Dick Cheney who think nothing of steering the country toward “the dark side”—to put it in his words. Right, you know, because sometimes the beacon of democracy and human rights on the planet just has to be a thug and secretly abduct, torture and beat the shit out of people. All for the cause. Sick.
So this why I write that being an American requires humbling introspection about what the American experience is all about. The good and the evil.
On January 7, 2011, part of me still seethed with anger toward Dick Cheney’s apologists and enablers, those clueless “patriots” who believe in a comic book America that is as real as the tooth fairy. And I’m just offering Cheney’s disturbing vision as the main example of why I have a very hard time flying a flag.
And then on Saturday morning, January 8, 2011, while she was conducting what she called “Congress on the Corner” outside a supermarket near Tucson—just trying to visit with her constituents—Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head. Six bystanders, including Arizona District Court Judge John Roll, and nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green, were killed by the same gunman who fired on Gabby Giffords.
I watched this unfold by the television in my parents living room in east Spokane. It made me sick with grief. Nineteen months later came the shootings in the Aurora, Colorado, cineplex, leaving 12 dead and 58 injured. Twelve dead and 58 injured by a single gunman. Then, five months later, came Sandy Hook, the nearly unimaginable massacre of six and seven year-old school children in Newtown, Connecticut.
Not to take anything from the horror of Aurora or Newtown, but what struck my solar plexus about the tragedy near Tucson is that the shooter targeted an elected official. And Gabby Giffords was a popular elected official, actually beloved by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Americans, for a variety of reasons, have been morally vacant when it comes to the rise of guns and the celebration of violence in our culture and in our cinematic and video console amusements. To me it seems obvious that this vacancy has not just enabled a senselessly violent society, but that it was inevitable that it would combine with the careless rhetoric (mostly spewing from right-wing media) and spill over into assassinations of elected officials. Once that happens—once good people stop running for office for fear they’ll become targets—then we’re really lost.
To me it also mattered that Gabby is married to astronaut Mark Kelly, who was the commander on that last flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. This is a quintessential American marriage, an inspiring story that became senselessly blood-soaked on a Saturday in January.
All of that was still on my mind late yesterday when I found some time to watch the tape of the former Congresswoman, escorted by her husband, sit as the lead witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.
Gabby Giffords’ testimony gave me chills. Lots of things have been keeping me awake lately, but what woke me up at 3:57 this morning was the emotional recoil of not just what she said yesterday, but how she said it. I have to admit it made my proud of being an American, that with all our flaws, we could produce a woman, and a family, of such decency and courage.
It’s only 71 words. But they are 71 words I’ll never forget.
“Thank you for inviting me here today. This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something! It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you, thank you.”
I hope there is a heaven, and I hope that Christina Taylor-Green, forever nine in our memories of her, was looking down with the children from Sandy Hook, to see a still living heroine perform this miracle, and deliver this message. For them.
Tim Connor’s commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.