An Open Letter Following the Tucson Tragedy


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“I make no pretense of having easy answers to complex problems, and I too struggle with the realization that sometimes it’s simpler to articulate what we’re against rather than what we’re for. This in fact seems to be fundamental to our culture, namely the tendency to be reflexively oppositional. In the wake of the Tucson shootings, that culture is now under a microscope, and perhaps in that we can find an opportunity to promote affirmation rather than denigration in our public discourse….”

Author: Randall Amster teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association
Published in: The Daily Courier out of Prescott, Arizona (at http://www.prescottaz.com/), TalkGwinnett.net (at http://www.talkgwinnett.net/), HuntingtonNews.net, Gilmer Free Press serving Gilmer County, Georgia (at http://www.gilmerfreepress.net/), Tek News (at http://teknews.us/)
Date: January 16, 18 and 23, 2011

For the full article:
An Open Letter Following the Tucson Tragedy
(945 words)
by Randall Amster

I have been writing columns for my local newspaper in Prescott, Arizona (pop. 43,000) for almost five years. In light of the tragedy in Tucson, I recently stepped out of the columnist’s role for a moment to express my sincere thanks to all of the readers for the privilege of appearing on the editorial pages and having a voice in our vibrant community discourse. And when I said “all,” I truly meant all — supporters and critics alike, and in some ways especially the critics.

This isn’t to say that it’s pleasant to be criticized, to have one’s words taken out of context, or to be personally attacked for making a political point. But it is an enormously beneficial “reality check” on one’s viewpoints, providing a unique opportunity for honest appraisal of our intentions and positions. Experiencing it publicly is at once a challenging and inspiring wrinkle in a process of ongoing reflection that we should always strive for in our personal and professional interactions.

For me, that’s precisely the point of my columns: not to persuade so much as to spark inquiry and promote dialogue. In so doing, one of the essential tasks is to state my opinion as succinctly, constructively, and persuasively as I can in the space allotted. I believe that readers deserve at least that much from anyone asking for your time and attention, and frankly for me it’s a personal precondition of doing it at all.

I make no pretense of having easy answers to complex problems, and I too struggle with the realization that sometimes it’s simpler to articulate what we’re against rather than what we’re for. This in fact seems to be fundamental to our culture, namely the tendency to be reflexively oppositional. In the wake of the Tucson shootings, that culture is now under a microscope, and perhaps in that we can find an opportunity to promote affirmation rather than denigration in our public discourse.

An essential discovery in the aftermath has been to remind us that words have power. Until quite recently, for most of us the scale of our enunciations was largely confined to small circles of friends, family, and colleagues — however, this is rapidly changing in the Internet/Telecom age, where our words are dramatically amplified. In particular, those who publish their thoughts widely, speak before audiences, appear in broadcast media, or otherwise hold bully pulpits in society, bear a special obligation to choose their words with care.

While some are inclined to castigate certain dominant voices who have at minimum pushed the envelope of that sacred responsibility, I’m a firm believer in what we might call “First Amendment remedies” to the issues, meaning that the antidote to harmful speech is more speech to counter it. Censorship is a dangerous slippery slope, and in seeking answers to tragedies we should take care not to foreclose open debate and continue the cycle of antipathy in the process.

That doesn’t mean we will all magically agree, but the aim must be to keep talking. What is the alternative? Annihilation of the “other side” is a logical impossibility at every level from the personal to the global, since we cannot accomplish it without doing the same to ourselves in the process. And as we’ve recently been reminded, rhetoric of this sort can contribute to an environment in which unthinkable acts start to become commonplace.

To any extent that I’ve ever contributed to this dynamic, I have asked the local readers to accept my profound and sincere apologies. If what I’ve written on the op-ed pages has ever made it seem that I believe my opinions matter more than others’ do, nothing could be further from the truth. Still, do not expect me to nod in agreement or refrain from responding if you espouse hatred, madness, or violence. This is doubly true if you hold a position of power in society, and/or if you direct your vitriol toward vulnerable or marginalized communities.

The recent political landscape in Arizona has raised many troubling issues that necessitate such intervention. It is neither morally palatable nor societally productive to declare a class of human beings as “illegal” and enact policies that are either implicitly or explicitly designed to reinforce a caste-like system in society. Such measures contribute to a volatile climate of fear and repression that is both unwise and unjust — and sometimes lethal.

But that’s not the point of this letter. Political arguments aside, surely we can agree that we care deeply about the fate of our communities and the future for our families. Let us debate how best to proceed, yet never lose sight of our points of convergence even as we negotiate the differences. In fact, on many occasions over the years of writing local columns, I have found such moments of commonality with those of all persuasions, and this has been one of the great joys of the undertaking.

In the wake of the tragic situation in Tucson and the renewed spotlight of negative attention it has brought to Arizona, I will continue to do my level best to represent my opinions firmly but fairly, to be strong-willed yet not narrow-minded, and to never insult readers’ intelligence nor diminish their humanity along the way.

For all of our sakes, let’s make this a mutual endeavor and show the world that whatever else transpires in our midst, we will not sacrifice our capacity for goodness and common purpose in the process. Indeed, this is the hallmark of democracy, and it applies with particular emphasis in local communities — where life is still lived in a manner that reminds us daily of the interlinked nature of our futures.

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Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association.