It’s been quite a week for leadership on display. Anna Bligh has shown us all that true leaders shine in the darkest hours and yesterday, Barack Obama gave us a lesson in the sort of uplifting oratory that reminds us why Americans chose him as their 44th president two years ago.
The aftermath of the Tucson, Arizona shooting, which left six dead and 20 injured, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, has predictably reignited the gun debate in the US, placed the right-wing ‘hate’ rhetoric of Sarah Palin and her followers under scrutiny, and led to questions about mental health care. The shooting is the tragic consequence of what happens when these three factors intersect. The alleged gunman, Jared Loughner, apparently suffers a mental illness but nonetheless had access to firearms – high-powered automatic firearms that allowed him to fire sufficient bullets without stopping to reload to fell 26 people in a short space of time.
In April 1996, a combination of mental illness and access to automatic weapons resulted in Martin Bryant carrying out one of the most deadly singlehanded killing sprees in history when he killed 35 and wounded 21 at Port Arthur in Tasmania. The Australian government’s response was swift and decisive – an immediate tightening of gun laws and elimination of loopholes. I seem to recall that it was the first and last time I ever applauded anything John Howard did. President Obama missed the opportunity to condemn the gun culture of the US, and particularly that of Arizona which has some of the loosest gun laws in the country. This is the state of the OK Corral and the infamous shootout at Tombstone, at which time, ironically, the state had tighter controls on guns than it does now.
Far from talking about gun control, many Republican politicians are calling for looser (as in, no) gun laws. One representative going so far as to say he hoped that the shooting would encourage more people to carry concealed guns. What is of great concern here is the complete breakdown of civil society and social capital, which rest on mutual trust and commitment to the common good. I question how concealed weapons carried by individuals in the public domain can foster mutual trust. I condemn any elected officials who encourage mistrust between citizens by promoting the concealing of weapons against the common man.
President Obama said that this was a time for Americans 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.” It is, but I doubt it is possible while other politicians and some sections of the American media encourage Americans to go around packing weapons under their clothing just in case someone else pulls a gun first.
For her part, Sarah Palin has appeared in stark contrast to the President. His words reached out and provided healing and inspiration. She was self-serving, inwards-looking and accusatory. She attempted to absolve herself of any responsibility, despite having had an image on her Facebook page using cross-hair targets to indicate the Democratic congressmen who had voted for Obama’s heath reform bill, and despite her Twitter comment, “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”. She claimed that her opponents were guilty of ‘blood libel’, a highly offensive anti-Semitic term. She made it clear that she believes crimes start and end with the criminal, passing over the suggestion that her words and the image she is projecting would have any influence over a mentally disturbed young man. That this contemptible woman could become President of the United States is a truly terrifying thought.
In 1996, sociologist, Robert Putnam, published a paper titled “Bowling Alone”, in which he examined the decline of social capital in the US. Putnam argued in favour of ‘networks of civic engagement’ fostered by ‘civil associations’ on the grounds that “social capital … bolsters the performance of the polity, and the economy … Strong society, strong economy; strong society, strong state”. In assessing the state of American society, he concluded that, “we have been depleting our national reserves of social capital, social trust, and generalized reciprocity and undercutting our capacity for mutually beneficial collective action.” A society which encourages citizens to mistrust one another to the point where they must arm themselves is not a society where social capital can flourish. It cannot be a just society if people feel the need to protect themselves from their neighbours, their colleagues, their fellow citizens.
In deliberating on the concept of a just society, Plato once contemplated whether, if he made an agreement with a man to hold his weapon until the man asked for it back, should he return it if the man went mad. To give a weapon to a madman, he concluded, would not be in the common interest of society, and thus he would be obliged to break his agreement with the man.
Barack Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service for those killed was one of his best, but unless it is followed up by action to rebuild social capital and restore a just society, they are words wasted.