For a while last month we here in Tucson were the epicenter of the world, thanks to the brutal act of the deeply disturbed man who murdered six innocent people and wounded 13 others, including our congresswoman and friend, Gabrielle Giffords. She is a kind, intelligent, principled, Jewish representative of great integrity, and a warm and wonderful person. While her survival was miraculous and her initial recovery has surpassed all expectations, there is a long road ahead for Gabby. We continue to pray for her complete recovery, wishing her a refuah shleimah, as do so many all across the world, and we pray for consolation for the families of the six who died, and for healing for all who are injured in body and soul.
As we mark the weeks since the terrible shooting, certain truths begin to accumulate about the attack and its aftermath. Foremost among them is that the attention of the world on this awful event has already faded, and any lessons from this tragedy must be learned and institutionalized quickly or they will be lost.
One lesson comes from the ways we have responded already. There are beautiful, strange shrines to the victims of the attack in various places around Tucson now, mostly messages to Gabby to heal, but also memorials to those who died: at the University Medical Center where she was in intensive care, at her congressional office, at the Safeway where the shootings occurred, at the school of the 9-year-old girl who died, Christina Taylor Green, and elsewhere. These are touching collections of candles, pictures, flowers, handmade posters, notes, gifts, prayers and wishes. My wife, Wendy, and I visited the one outside UMC, which is quite large and impressive. We were told that there are always people walking through it, 24 hours a day, stopping to pray and meditate and visit. It was an immensely touching experience.
We Jews are not much given to shrines, what with the prohibitions we observe on idols and other images of adulation. But this one is special.
Most moving is the unique spirit among the people at the shrine, a spirit that has been reflected throughout our community in the past few weeks. People at the UMC shrine were amazingly kind to one another. There was an aura of compassion that permeated the place, a kind of sad peace that made everyone gentler.
I have noticed that in the aftermath of this tragedy, even with heated rhetoric coming from other quarters, people are acting with unusual decency and kindness. There is a new air in Tucson, an approach to civic interaction that is also civil and reflects a kind of decency that has always been present but was more likely to be latent than active. It gives me hope that out of this awful experience good may yet be created.
Without cynicism, there is a certain cycle to this kind of horrifying experience. After the initial shock and anger, and the immediate recovery, people are often kinder to one another. Sometimes, if people work together to continue that tendency, this becomes a permanent part of the community’s identity.
I remember New York City before 9/11, and the remarkable experience of visiting it again after 9/11. It was extraordinarily different — and it still is. People will actually ask if you need help or directions. Toll collectors will patiently wait while you fish out your bills. Transit workers have held gates open for me and my kids. I’ve even had ticket-takers advise me on how to save money on my purchase — in New York! I do not believe that in the 350 years of the city’s existence prior to 9/11 any of this ever occurred.
There is new hope for Tucson to become a gentler, kinder, more compassionate place. And there is also the potential that our entire country, which has been so infatuated with inflammatory, violent rhetoric filled with gun references, will re-learn the central virtue of common decency and civility.
We used to have, at times, a recognition of the value of civility in America. I believe that we are realizing now that we need to recover that and reinforce it greatly, in speech and action. I saw a friend of mine in a hospital recently, a Catholic monsignor. He said, “Where evil exists, grace abounds.” I’m not sure of that, but I am quite sure that a greater level of grace and respect for one another, an understanding of derech erets, human decency, will make it much harder for evil to flourish, or even exist.
We are coming to understand that differing ideas need to be expressed respectfully, that we are a family, not a collection of enemies, and that the temperature of the discourse in our society needs to be dramatically lowered.
We can and should disagree in a democracy. But we must do so within the construct of a respectful society. I pray that we continue to learn this from our recent trauma. And that we continue to be kind and considerate.
We can disagree with our government representatives without accusing them of treason or treachery or malfeasance or criminal activity. We can disagree with each other without resorting to personal attacks, either verbal or physical.
We can have a society that is free and open and also civil and respectful. And now, after the Tucson attacks, we must. With God’s help, and through our own actions and attitudes, we will.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and host of “Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends” on KVOI 1030 AM, toojewishradio.com.