After Giffords Attack, Searching for Compassion
By Steven Philp
Addressing nationwide concern for Representative Gabrielle Giffords, doctors have expressed hope for her recovery despite having suffered a gunshot wound to the head. According to an article posted by Haaretz, the bullet passed through the left side of the brain, including areas that control speech function; her doctors have warned that extensive damage in these locations could preclude a full recovery from the incident. “There are obvious areas of our brain that are less tolerant to intrusion,” said Dr. Michael Lemole. “I don’t want to go down the speculation road but at the same time we’re cautiously optimistic.” Although in critical condition Giffords has been able to respond to simple commands, such as holding up two fingers when prompted.
Yet optimism is a precious commodity given the nature of the shooting, which left 18 injured and six dead, including nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. In an interview with Haaretz, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim expressed her dismay, stating that both the Jewish and non-Jewish community of Tucson is “shocked and horrified, and completely saddened…We don’t know all the details, but it is incomprehensible.” Giffords has attended Congregation Chaverim for over ten years. Although authorities have yet to shed light on the motives of the shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, some have pointed to possible anti-Semitism. According to an interview with Associated Press – conducted on condition of anonymity – a government official familiar with the case said that local authorities have been pursuing a link between Loughner and American Renaissance, an anti-government group associated with the white supremacist organization New Century Foundation. Both groups are known for their anti-Semitic and anti-government rhetoric, which is reflected in some of Loughner’s online video and blog posts.
However some see these potential motives as part of a larger problem, pointing to the prevalence of aggressive – if not overtly militaristic – rhetoric in national debate. According to the Guardian, Giffords has been repeatedly targeted by the Tea Party after voting for healthcare reform and vocally opposing Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. Tucson sheriff Clarence Dupnik expressed his concern that “growing hate and anger” toward the government, including calls to armed resistance, played a role in the shooting. Similarly, the National Jewish Democratic Council released a statement that read, “Many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse.” Called a traitor to her country, Gifford was included on a “target list” posted by Sarah Palin’s PAC during the midterm election which marked key races with gun sights. Although the graphic has since been pulled from the Web site, news sources like the Huffington Post still carry the image.
Yet some continue this violent rhetoric, including the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), which came in to the national spotlight several years ago through its anti-gay and anti-Semitic protests. Given their record, it is unsurprising that they would target the victims of the Arizona shooting. According to a flyer posted on their Web site and reposted on the Huffington Post, the WBC writes, “THANK GOD FOR THE SHOOTER – 6 DEAD!” They continue, stating that the deaths are divine retribution for the federal court case that was brought against the WBC for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers.
However, there is a counter-message. Media figures such as Keith Olbermann have come out against the hate-filled rhetoric, asking for an overhaul of national debate and the movement away from violent and incendiary language. This is reminiscent of a voice that emerged from the Jewish community several months ago. As part of a new campaign against “fear-based politics,” Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR – a progressive Jewish community based in Los Angeles, CA – posted a video calling for “radical empathy.” She reminds us that, as Jews, we understand vulnerability. Yet we can use our collective memory of suffering to recognize the rhetoric of fear, and to counter it through absolute and unfaltering compassion. Al tirah, “fear not,” reads the Torah; Rabbi Brous looks to this reminder, a direct command from G-d to face adversity with conviction. Instead of pointing our indignation at Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, the Westboro Baptist Church, or – as difficult as this may be – Jared Loughner, we need to ask questions. What are they afraid of? Why? And how can we – as Jews, as Americans, and as people of conscience – meet their fears with the empathy needed to soften their hearts?