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C. Fraser Smith: Freedom meets reality in a hail of bullets

We are all Arizonans.

We are all heartsick.

We all mourn the victims of last Saturday’s massacre in Tucson — six dead and 14 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

We are all living in communities with untreated mental illness.

We are all at risk of a shooting rampage. Our children, our judges, our elected representatives are — forgive the imagery — in the cross hairs of fate.

We all face the volatile issue of immigration.

We are all battered by abusive political language.

We are all in denial.

Solving problems with guns

We all are faced with the specter of a society that solves its problems with guns.

Is this an overstatement? One can only hope.

When voters are urged, as they were in Arizona, to attend a political rally with their AK47s, something has gone off the tracks.

Think of it: You are running for public office, you are asking to be the people’s representative in a representative government where difficult issues are debated, and you urge people to express themselves with their weapons.

We congratulate ourselves for living in a country where democracy reigns, where elections come and go peacefully. We are losing those bragging rights.

We are all tempted to blame someone, some group, some commentator for the rampage in Tucson or Blacksburg or Columbine.

It’s beside the point. We are living at a moment when the willingness to threaten the use of guns is a part of the new political reality.

Sarah Palin says don’t retreat, reload. Not to be taken literally?

It’s not necessary to blame the carnage in Tucson on Palin or the NRA or conservative commentators. Still, the willingness to invite gun use with “reload”-type language, coupled with the usual condemnations of government, challenges the survival of a system in which disputes are settled peacefully.

It comes as we all struggle with the problems of a complex society, one in which the values of individual freedoms can seem to conflict with reality.

Dealing with the deranged

For example, mental health experts wonder if the civil liberties advocates haven’t kept us all from considering carefully enough how to deal with those among us who seem capable of deranged or violent acts. A community college in Tucson essentially expelled Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter in Saturday’s rampage. It acted on what it heard from his classmates.

But should something more have been done? Under what circumstances? How could procedures of this sort be made effective or justified? Only a small percentage of people fall into the risk category. What can be done to protect us from the deranged few?

These questions have been on the table for years. It’s obviously important to keep asking them. And to ask them in forums where everyone is free to speak candidly.

One of the many disturbing facts to emerge from the shooting in Tucson is the congresswoman’s prediction of violence. Someone may have fired a pellet gun into her congressional office. The campaign staff had taken to letting law enforcement know where she would be campaigning.

She apparently had some fear of being home in the district she represented in Washington. What a statement.

Last Saturday, a local Arizona sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, set aside any thought of political correctness. Hurt and angry, he spoke out against the toxic rhetoric.

“… The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” he said.

We will all wish to say that Arizona is not Maryland or Illinois or Rhode Island. We wish to exempt ourselves from the possibility that violence could rip into the fabric our lives.

But in a very real sense we are all Arizonans.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.