Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” I have been mulling that quote over in my mind since I learned of the horrible assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the cold-blooded murder of the other innocent Arizonans in Tucson. Certainly, the main person guilty is the man who pulled the trigger, and he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But, in Heschel’s formulation, all of us are somewhat responsible for what happened, for allowing our society to sink to such a level that our media spews violent rhetoric from prominent politicians and pundits without consequence; all of us are responsible for allowing the debate about guns and gun control, something that should be so sensible, to devolve into angry, violent reactions and prevent us from making laws that can protect people from the monstrous nature of daily firearm deaths in our country; all of us are responsible for supporting violent films and video games, glorifying violence on the screen that only serves to affect our children and our psyches. If we think it doesn’t have an effect, we are sorely deluding ourselves.
This is a tragedy not only for Arizona, but for all of America. If it turns out that this individual was connected to or influenced by extremist elements in our country, what will we do? What will we say? Everyone will condemn this publicly, but who will be ready to stand against these elements? We cannot condone people who use violent rhetoric and the dehumanization of public servants to create an environment that both legitimates hatred and tempts unstable personalities to engage in violent acts. We cannot condone language that “targets” opponents and places our adversaries on “hit lists.”
On a personal level, Rep. Giffords and her aide, Gabe Zimmerman, are Jewish, so I am saddened for our Jewish community. And, I am reminded of the run-up to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in Israel, as I watched the summer before, living there, how the hateful rhetoric, grotesque posters and tacit approval from religious and political leaders for the killing ended in horror. And, as a human being and voice of peace, I am moved to call out and ask: Why? Why do we have to continue to see senseless violence cutting down the lives of innocent men, women and children? Will we allow violence and rage to overtake our great country?
The arc of history bends toward justice, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, and as we celebrate his life and work this coming weekend, we need his voice and the voice of today’s Kings louder than ever. King’s values — love, compassion, nonviolence and tolerance — are being drowned out by the values of a fringe minority in our country. We have seen religion and religious rhetoric used throughout history to divide, to kill and to justify the worst crimes imaginable. Will we let that happen again here in 21st century America? We can and must overcome hate with love, overcome what Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik articulated when he said Arizona has become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry, by reminding all of us of our greater common humanity.
In the Talmud, we learn about how the ancient rabbis differed passionately with one another on matters of law, but at the end of the day were able to eat together, pray together and marry their children to one another. That civility and respect used to exist in our country, and in our halls of government but has sadly given way to the bitter divides we currently see before us. We are all responsible for trying to rebuild what has been destroyed in recent years. If we don’t start now, I fear there will be more bloody days like the ones we witnessed in the streets of Tucson. That was not King’s dream, and it certainly would be our worst nightmare.
May God bless the families of those who died, and send healing and recovery to Rep. Giffords and the others injured.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.