Thursday, January 13, 2011


The blogosphere is burgeoning with response to the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson last Saturday morning.  While there is an outpouring of grief, sympathy and condolence, the bigger noise may be from saber-rattling of the left and right - geez, I can't even write a first paragraph without fighting rhetoric creeping in - over who is culpable for the shooting.

Oh sure, everybody concedes that the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, a 22 year old with a history of erratic behavior, is ultimately responsible. 

But there also emerged an immediate and visceral sense that Loughner, whose belongings included certain rantings against the government associated with right-wing ideology, might have been inflamed past the tipping point by right-wing rhetoric.

And an equally instinctive protest of innocence on the right, accompanied, of course, by the requisite cross-claims about violent Democrat rhetoric.   That's "cross-claims," not "cross-hairs," by the way

Click this sentence for some pretty graphic depictions of Republican candidates by some of our left-leaning pals.  It's not just the right-wing who wanna inflict bodily harm.

Because ex-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's campaign used a visual that targeted Democratic candidates for defeat inside the cross-hairs of a gun, much of this debate has been focused on Palin herself.  Many have called for Palin to apologize - to take responsibility for this ad and her other gun metaphor-ladin speech, to call herself out as wrong-headed in retrospect, to come forth and lead the nation in toning down rhetoric.

I want to talk about apologies for a moment.  As a mediator, I know that an apology can go a long way toward healing between two conflicting factions.  Yet, we here in America don't like to apologize.  We find apologies so uncomfortable - recall, if you're old enough, "The Fonz" on "Happy Days" stuttering out his attempt to say, "I'm s..s..s..o..r..r..r..r..r..y..."!  

Apologies infer culpability, and for reasons I'm not totally clear about, we avoid culpability like the plague.  Are we afraid of law suits?  Are we afraid of losing respect?   Are we afraid of being labeled with our misdeed, a scarlet "A" for Apologist?

I'd like to turn that around a little.  What if that scarlet letter were really for Accountable?   We all make mistakes, both individually, and as a culture.  To pretend otherwise is disengenuous.  Taking responsibility for our mistakes, admitting them, and apologizing creates a space to end a destructive behavior, to move forward constructively.  To save relationships.  Denying real culpability, on the other hand, causes us to rationalize and legitimize destructive behavior, thereby perpetuating the negative.

I once read an article by a woman named Natalia Garland, written all the way back in 2003.  She was thinking about the apologies of Pope John Paul II and of the Reverend Billy Graham.  Pope John Paul II apologized on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution for the harms caused by the Church over history, including the sexual victimization of children by the catholic priesthood, the Church's collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust, and even to the Eastern Orthodox for the activities of the crusaders which led to the fall of Constantinople.

Billy Graham, on the other hand, was apologizing for his own actions.  In 2002, some of former President Richard Nixon's tapes were declassified, and Graham was heard on them to engage with Nixon in some disturbingly anti-semitic comments.  He later apologized personally to Jewish organizations, and in the press, saying he deeply regretted having made those statements.  Graham didn't even remember having made the statements, but in hindsight, admitted that he must have been sucking up to the President (my words, of course, not Graham's).   

Garland, in her article, notes the difference between these two apologies:

"Billy Graham apologized for himself, for his own doings. Whereas the Pope apologized for others' doings and for the impact of history. The Pope apologized as a leader, as a representative of an organized religion, on behalf of those who committed atrocities in the name of God, and on behalf of the corrupt and depraved segments of his religion. Billy Graham acted as a man of honor and conscience. The Pope acted as a Christlike figure, taking on the sins of others."

In more recent times, we've seen Chicago Tribune executive Lee Adams apologize to his employees for sending out lewd videos using the company email.  We've seen NPR's CEO Vivian Schiller apologize to her colleagues for the way she fired Juan Williams from his job as correspondent.  The White House and others apologized to fired Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sharrod for the hasty action that turned out to be wholey wrong-headed.  Baseball player Josh Hamilton apologized to his wife, his team, and his fans for blowing sobriety and nearly destroying everything he'd worked so hard for.

Scholars have spent a lot of time studying what mediators know from experience:  apologies are excellent beginning points for reconciliation.  They are necessary steps toward rebuilding trust.  Roy Lewiki and EdwardTomlinson, in a piece on trust-building, said,

"...[A]pologies and promises signal remorse and assurance for the future, respectively. These are important forms of communication that help to restore balance in the relationship and convince the victim that it will be safe to trust again in the future."

Getting back to the Tucson shooting, nobody wants to be culpable for Loughner's actions.  In fact, there is no direct culpability for Palin or any of the other rhetoric slingers on either side of the fence.  Jared Lee Loughner alone pulled that trigger.

But neither should we ignore the quick, national, visceral impression that we've become an angrier nation than we want to be.   We can simply look at the raised level of vitriol on our facebook pages to see that inflamed rhetoric leads to inflamed tempers.  I don't know about you, but I know too many former facebook "friends" who've gotten angry enough to defriend each other over heated rhetorical exchanges.  And frequently use hate language to discuss each other afterward. 

If heated rhetoric can cause normally social people to come unhinged on facebook, what's to say that a climate of heated rhetoric won't put a few crazy people over the edge?  Or drive a few sane people to craziness?

There is, in the law, something informally known as "the eggshell rule."  It says, "you take your victim as you find him."  If your victim is particularly fragile, and but for that fragility your action would have left no damages, you are nevertheless fully responsible.

What would be so wrong with a few of the more vitriolic of our statesmen and women, and our media personalities, from standing up to say, "in hindsight, this might not have been a good idea"? 

And, I think we ought to take responsibility as a society as a whole for allowing ourselves to slowly roll into a more graphic, gratuitiously violent culture where the violence metaphors of Palin, Glenn Beck and others in both parties have become run-of-the-mill rather than outrageous.  Today we stand by while our kids play video games filled with blood, guts and death, whereas my mother wouldn't let me see a James Bond movie until I was 18.   The gun lobby goes overboard, using terrorism, crime rates and border bandits to scare otherwise normal citizens into loosening gun laws well past the intentions of the Second Amendment, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed".

We've done this as a whole.  Sarah Palin simply tapped into something already present, or it wouldn't have been so appealing to so many.

Whether or not this trend toward violent speech triggered the Tucson shooting, it has certainly driven a wedge between countrymen and at times, has made it nearly impossible for our elected officials to function on our behalf.

I don't know who, by rights, should apologize to Gaby Giffords, the other injureds and the families of the slain on behalf of our culture for this generic slide into the abyss of violence.  I don't know who should apologize to our country for allowing this breach of trust to so deeply divide us.  I had hoped that someone in leadership would step forward to say, "I've missed the mark here, I've steered us away from our brightest future."  I had hoped that someone with charisma would lead us back toward each other, toward healing, hope and reconciliation. 

I hoped maybe President Obama would step forward.  He did say this today:

"[W]hat we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together." 

But that is not an apology.  That is not an acceptance of responsibility.  I hoped maybe Sarah Palin would do so.  She did say this today:

"We know violence isn’t the answer. When we ‘take up our arms’, we’re talking about our vote.” Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully at the ballot box – as we did just two months ago, and as our Republic enables us to do again in the next election, and the next. That’s who we are as Americans and how we were meant to be. Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional."

Neither was that an acceptance of responsibility.  It was not an apology.

So, what's a little Jewish blogger to do?  

Um... ok... how about if I do it?   Here.  Now.   No, I don't think I have any special stature like the President, Sarah Palin or the Pope. 

But I think I can do it in the spirit of the vidui, the ancient Jewish communal confession said annually at the high holidays, because our sins are common.  We may undertake them alone, but their impact is felt in the context of community.   Our sins may be our own, but they also may be triggered, prompted, nurtured, supported, even invited by the structure and offerings of the community.  We are in it together, as we were reminded so chillingly last Saturday.

So, here goes. 

Al chet...I confess...and apologize...

For ever being hard-hearted and angry toward my own countrymen,
And for allowing myself to sink into baseless hatred, for holding a grudge, for failing to forgive,

For anything I may have said or done to infer that it is acceptable to look the other way in the face of violence in action or in speech.

For anything I may have said or done to infer that violence can be humorous or laughed off.

For anything I may have said or done to infer that violence is an acceptable political metaphor among countrymen in a country that should be striving to build national trust, strength and harmony.

For failing to take a stand on the creep of violent rhetoric and violent imagery into our society, simply because I could easily avoid exposing myself and my daughters by turning off the TV, refusing to buy the video, ignoring the movie.

For hiding behind the first amendment when it comes to asking myself whether this is my responsibility to speak out.  Just because something is legal doesn't make it right. 

For all these sins, and others I have forgotten to mention, please, friends, forgive me, pardon me, and be willing to move with me toward reconcilliation and healing.

Come on folks, if the leaders won't lead, let us lead by example.


  1. Amen.

    Personally, I feel like the media pushed for increased political rhetoric. I don't believe the case has anything to do with the left or the right, up or down, purple or blue. The KC Star's article: ( focuses on what I think is closer to the real aspect of what happened in Tucson. I am not a mental health professional or political scientist, but it seems like a straightforward case of mental illness. An attempt to blame a political party is absurd and irrelevant to the real problem at hand. I think the institution that failed to address the obvious need for this person to receive medical treatment is the only entity expected to respond to this situation. Why hasn't that happened? Why does it have to be a blame game or opportunity for left to bash right? It's about people, not parties. I am afraid we are missing the point.

  2. Whitney, it tickles me that you're still reading my blog!

    I agree that we are missing the point. I think, however, that this issue of how polarized and angry we are with each other as a nation was just below the surface, and this tragedy brought it to center-stage. I hope we can use this event as a catalyst to national healing.

  3. One of the things we talk about in our authentic conversations work is learning the skill of 'owning your own contribution.' In any situation that involves more than one person, EVERYONE has contributed to a difficult situation — only people tend to focus outwardly instead of inwardly. You have clearly looked inwardly, and expressed your contribution beautifully. My contributions are very similar, and so I also apologize, and renew my intentions to engage fellow citizens civilly, regardless of their views.

  4. I sincerely agree. And of course I am still reading your blog ;) You're a perpetual and out of the "classroom".

  5. Sandy,

    Your words bring me to tears. I am humbled by your ability to take the burden of our sins, and hold them as a way to apologize for our actions, both individually and collectively.

    It is also very important to point out that the Hebrew word for sin, Chet, literally means something that goes astray. It is a term used in archery to indicate that the arrow has missed its target. I see you allude to that image in your blog, and it is certainly appropriate.

    Thank you for a heartfelt piece.