On Celebrating Gabby and Calling Bullshit

TUCSON - Unfinished reports on faraway places litter my desk - ocean plunder, abandoned refugees, Cape Town running dry - but I'm fixated on those pools of blood, indelible in memory, at the Safeway just up the road. For sheer human folly and hypocrisy these days, America is first.

Imagine where the world might be today if we had been paying more attention to Gabrielle Giffords.

In January 2011, as I changed planes headed to Tucson from Paris, my phone went bananas. A homegrown lunatic had shot my congresswoman in the head and murdered six people, including a much-loved 9-year-old girl and a federal judge.

Hundreds kept an all-night vigil at the hospital. Beyond the usual “thoughts and prayers” deluge and politicians’ promises, two ex-presidents were named honorary chairmen of a National Institute for Civic Discourse in Tucson, which reportedly raised a million dollars. Barack Obama flew in for the memorial service.

Today, after seven years of increasingly uncivil national discourse, the institute is all but unnoticed in a suite on East Speedway. Gabby and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, still plead with limited success for sensible gun control. Mass shootings are so common we can barely keep track of them.

This time may be different. “I don't want your condolences you fucking piece of shit,” a Florida high school sophomore tweeted to Donald Trump, “my friends and teachers were shot.” The message, beyond viral, resonates across America: enough bullshit.

No one needs a recap of what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School or callous blame shifting by NRA-funded sellouts in Washington. But reflect a moment on what we can learn in the aftermath of that Safeway slaughter.

I met Gabby when she first ran for Congress and profiled her in a book titled Escaping Plato's Cave. My subtitle then was a figurative stretch: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival. Now that is literal.

We often elect crusading yet clueless zealots as freshmen to Congress. Think of Tom Cotton of Arkansas, reminiscent of the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather. He sideswiped the White House in 2015, getting 47 Republicans to sign an open letter to Iran disavowing that vital nuclear accord.

Gabby was the opposite. She was a Democrat who always remembered she also represented Republicans. She listened before she spoke, drew her own conclusions and read the stacks of paper her party whip told her to sign.

After her trip to Baghdad in 2007, I asked what she thought of Iraq. “I didn't see it,” she said. “I saw the Green Zone.” Unlike many on congressional delegations, she asked hard questions and refused to take flimflam at face value.

Gabby is from an old Tucson family whose El Campo Tire and Auto Service kept my old Chevy in retreads. Like many of us Arizonans, she grew up with hunting rifles. Venison, we all know, is not too tasty when blasted by an anti-sniper cannon.

In Congress, she understood the Second Amendment was to let people keep muzzle-loading muskets handy in case the British came back. It still gives us the right to own guns. But, like cars, they should not be weapons of mass murder.

Guns were only part of it.

Having grown up near the border, she saw firsthand that the United States and Mexico thrive by symbiosis. Each needs the other. Mexicans who can come and go legally do our dirty work, pay taxes, and support families back home. A wall doesn't stop drugs or criminals. Mostly, it fences us in.

She believed in taking in a reasonable amount of refugees, after screening, because it was the right thing do. Also, she saw no wisdom in condemning desperate people to squalid camps where, inevitably, many would grow to hate us.  

As a Jew, Gabby defended Israel, but she saw why a hard-line Zionist policy of subjugating Palestine put Israel's future in peril. She fought for smart, even-handed diplomacy and human rights across the board.
A small-d Democrat, she compromised with colleagues across the aisle. She took her oath of office seriously. That Safeway massacre was the price she paid for listening to constituents at events she called “Congress On Your Corner.”

Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot and lockstep Republican, now holds her seat. In one defining moment, McSally rallied partisans intent on gutting the Affordable Health Care Act: “Let's get this fucking thing done.”

She speaks to constituents by phone, with vetted questions, or at small rallies packed with supporters. John McCain is ailing. Jeff Flake, after blasting Donald Trump and defending a free press, is walking away. So she is running for the Senate.

And so it goes in an uncivil state in an increasingly uncivil nation.

Now I'm a displaced Arizonan, living in Europe and returning for a few months a year to teach a fresh generation that has had me worried. Too many students seem oblivious to the world they are losing.

I was baffled by visceral distaste for Hillary Clinton. She was an effective two-term New York senator, reelected by a thumping majority. I've seen her in action abroad. She would have been a good president, certainly better than what we've got.

But those kids in Florida - articulate, reasoned in their outrage - are a lesson to us elders. The world is going to be theirs, and they are calling bullshit. Skilled as she is, Hillary represents an old order that seems atrophied beyond likely change.

Guns are a complicated issue. Too many people want to give yet more power to police to spy on citizens and commit suspects to a mental gulag for what they might be planning. That is the road to Animal Farm. But guns are an urgent issue, and a good place to start.

We need fresh energy and ideals. New people are stepping forward, of both genders and all hues, getting angry and intent on getting elected. But young voters can't do it alone. Our electoral obstacle course requires a president to spend two billion dollars for a job that pays half the salary of a middling college football coach.

  In the end, voting comes down to a choice of two imperfect people, whether for the White House, or Congress, or state legislatures. Enough of them, like Gabby Giffords who put the citizenry above themselves, can effect change over time.

At least for now, the Constitution and the courts still function more or less as designed. Fixing a rigged system is possible if it is no more than a Herculean task. But without enough pushing, our democracy is crushed under a Sisyphean stone.

Corrected version to reflect that two ex-presidents, honorary co-chairmen, did not come to Tucson, and to add Barack Obama.