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Lessons from Tucson

Jon MelegritoBy Jon Melegrito

I was going to write something light-hearted to start off the New Year, like poke fun at the expected partisan brawl over plans to repeal health care.  Recall that this bill was debated with inflammatory rhetoric in town halls across the country, along with a brazen display of assault rifles at public events. Scary.

But the carnage in Tucson, Arizona that left six dead and a U.S. Congresswoman critically wounded has set a somber and grim tone for 2011.  It’s a wake up call.

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords may not have been politically motivated, but one thing is clear: vitriolic words have spawned an ugly climate of division and hate, inciting people to acts of unprecedented hostility and violence. All it takes is one nut to pull the trigger. And that’s what happened in Tucson barely a week after a new year rolled in.

Rep. Giffords herself saw it coming.  A moderate Democrat in a heavily conservative district, she risked re-election to a third term by voting in favor of the health care reform bill.  After she voted, her Tucson office was vandalized.

In June 2010, Giffords’ Republican opponent used campaign language in his ads encouraging voters to “shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.” It didn’t stop there. Ms. Giffords was also alarmed when she was among a group of Democratic House candidates featured on a Sarah Palin Web site with cross hairs of a gun sight over their districts. “When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences.” Palin has since taken down the Web site.

Despite the threats, Giffords remained openly engaged with her constituents, exposing herself at public events to that certain segment of the population that’s already enflamed in their extremism.

The media, Fox News in particular, are relentlessly pounding viewers with warnings that the country is being invaded by “illegal aliens” and “imposters from Kenya.” Or that clinics are murdering babies and government “death panels” are killing the elderly.  Glen Beck, a well-respected commentator, shamelessly traffics in conspiracy theories and untruths. Instead of enlightening the public about complicated issues like health care, talking heads from the extreme right and extreme left revel in polluting the political environment where each side demonizes the other as  evil.  As one blogger aptly puts it, “if you shout that loud enough, the wackos will respond.”

And that’s what happened in Tucson.  “The words matter,” continues this blogger. “It’s not guns or cities or the rare wacko. The hateful, threatening words  by media, internet flamers, and radical politicians  the words have become a lethal infection. They matter.”

The reaction of the Pima County Sheriff to the shootings is very instructive: “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” He is referring, of course to the draconian anti-immigrant law passed by the state a year ago. State legislators in Virginia and Maryland are also considering a similar bill. I hope cooler heads will prevail.

It may seem an isolated case then but the shooting death of Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American postal worker, more than 10 years ago was a racially-motivated hate-crime prompted by a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. The self-avowed white supremacist admitted killing him “because he is Hispanic.” Indeed, if you shout that loud enough, the wackos will respond.

In public discussions, I have always made it a point to call people who come here or overstay without legal status as undocumented immigrants not “illegal aliens.” Maybe if we begin using a more humane language that speaks to their dignity as human beings, we will do our part in bringing more light, and less heat, in our public discourse.  We can further help lower the temperature by thinking twice before forwarding to friends and relatives incendiary e-mails that incite more fear and hatred.

“I understand that this health care bill is incredibly personal,” Giffords said shortly after the measure passed last year, “probably the most significant vote cast here for decades, frankly. But the reality is that we’ve got to focus on the policy, focus on the process, but leaders  community leaders, not just political leaders  have to stand back when things get too fired up and say, ‘Whoa, let’s take a step back here.’”

I enjoin opinion makers in our community to take the lead and encourage more community dialogues  on these contentious issues.  NaFFAA leaders  in partnership with other organizations  have sponsoredpulong-pulongs (town halls) on health care and immigration reform before, and they plan to continue these conversations. I invite community leaders to take this opportunity to join these efforts.  We have a stake as Filipino Americans in shaping public policy, but in a way that respects differences and aspires for common ground.

E-mail your comments to jonmele@aol.com


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