Key words: Tucson tragedy, Rep Gifford, honest and reasoned commitment to honor the victims, honest communication, US society re-examination, immigration, reproductive rights, stereotyped ideology, Liberal, Conservative, religion, use of words.opportunities, changing society  

Lessons From The Tucson Tragedy
Dudley Weeks, PhD. ©



January 13, 2011

I am sure we all feel deep sorrow for those who lost their lives, were injured, or lost a loved one in the tragic violence in Tucson.  We offer our sincere heart-felt sympathies and support.

But we need to do more.  We need to embark upon an honest and reasoned commitment to learn from the tragedy, partly in honor of the victims, and partly because our society needs a self-examination. 

We do not shy away from an examination of certain aspects of society, such as the economy, war policies, health care, and the specific issues of immigration, reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and countless others.  Yet, we seem reluctant to confront a major component of who we have become and can be as a society.  That component focuses on how we deal with our differences. 

The tragedy in Tucson is the latest event challenging us to confront that critical question.  If we allow ourselves to remain trapped in rigid, stereotyped boxes and see each other in terms of political party, Liberal and Conservative labels, religion, or opinion on a single issue, the self examination will be woefully inadequate.

We try to make sense out of seemingly senseless acts such as the Tucson tragedy.  Some people refuse to engage in any societal examination, saying the gunman is simply an unstable individual.  Others, choosing to remain trapped in their own simplistic, rigid box of political party and stereotyped ideology, rush to blame the opposing party or ideology.  Still others become so fixated on defending themselves from blame, they contribute nothing to the  learning process that can and must result from a tragedy such as the event in Tucson.

Self-examination at the societal level may not produce definitive “answers”.  We may never know what led the gunman to commit violence.  But to refuse to look beyond the simplistic “He’s just an unstable individual” explanation does damage to our society as a whole by obstructing learning and potential improvement.

Here are two basic principles I suggest we need to follow, some of them learned as early as childhood yet often ignored as adults. 

1. THE WORDS WE USE AFFECT BEHAVIOR.  We may not intend for those words to influence another person to commit acts of violence, but history is full of cases where that has happened.  So why use those words, why take the chance?  Is our vocabulary that limited?  Words, expressions, and published materials that create an “Us versus Them” or “enemy” atmosphere are prime examples.  War strategists have long believed that preparing the citizenry to support a war begins with creating an image of the “other” as an “enemy”.

Some politicians seem to be so obsessed with “winning” in elections they think they have to create an image of the opponent as unpatriotic, or an enemy who should be targeted for defeat.  To me, that’s an insult to the intelligence of the voters.  Why not clearly state one’s own policies, the opponent does the same, and the voters make their choice?  That’s the basic foundation of electoral democracy.  Inflammatory language is not needed.  Furthermore, if there’s even the slightest chance such language might incite either stable or unstable individuals to commit violent acts, don’t use such language.  That’s true in relationships, families, communities, indeed in all interactions.  Politics should not be immune from this basic principle


2.  DIVERSITY IN OPINIONS AND POLICIES EXPANDS THE RANGE OF POSSIBILITIES AND CHOICE.  Differences provide opportunities to examine one’s own opinions more closely, to find constructive connections in the midst of disagreement, and to discover possibilities for cooperation.  That’s what responsible leaders do in a society that allows and claims to respect the value of diversity.  Those leaders who seem to treat anyone who disagrees with them as obstacles rather than partners in the task of leadership weaken the fabric of a pluralistic society.  When they use language that can potentially incite extreme behavior, or deplores cooperation with those who disagree, the society is further damaged.


So even though we may never know conclusively all the reasons for the gunman’s behavior in Tucson, we still need to do some serious self-examination as a society.  As we go forward, there will be a lot of focus on the pros and cons of specific issues, such as gun control laws, more extensive security for elected officials, and earlier identification and follow-up of potentially violent individuals.

But let’s not ignore what may be the most fundamental and far-reaching task in our self-examination as individuals, groups, and as a society.  That task is improving how we perceive those who disagree with us, and how we communicate our differences.

Dudley Weeks

(Copyright 2011: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of legal restrictions.}