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Tucson shooting: Trying to make sense of the senseless

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Reflections on the Tucson tragedy

 A civic-minded nine-year-old attends a political event in her community. Inexplicably, she, among others, is shot and killed. How do we wrap our minds around senseless tragedy of this magnitude? And how can we possibly explain it to our children?

Reflections on the Tucson tragedyPolitical dialogue

Political rhetoric and violent dialogue and imagery may or may not be a factor in this shooting. But I think the fact that so many on both sides of the political aisle jumped to a political stance in the wake of the shooting indicates -- to me -- that many had been becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the state of political discourse. And because the intended target of the shooting was a politician at a political event, I think it is, by default, political -- though to what extent is up for further debate. I think that, at it's most basic, the tragedy does present an opportunity for reflection on our political landscape -- an opportunity I think we should take.

Like I said, politics is in my blood. Most of the time I embrace that side of myself; sometimes I wish I could push the political thoughts out of my head and move on blithely from this issue or that. I can't of course. I find that often I just can't sit idly by when I believe in something. As such, I'm fairly active in my community and town politics, and sometimes I'm not on the popular side of the issue. With something like this, I can't let it go. I can't.

We try to raise our children with civic mindedness. We talk at home about why we are involved in this issue or that, why we support one side or the other, how we feel it meshes with the values we are trying to convey to our children. We encourage our kids to get involved. We have tried -- and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed -- to convey a balanced political discourse.

In the wake of this horrible act, whether or not it was "political" at it's core, I'm thinking hard about how I talk politics and issues with my kids. Was I complicit in any way for the current political tone? Did I not do enough to combat the extreme and often violent discourse that I hear, even in my small town? Did I remind my kids enough that talking like that is just not okay, and did I lead by example? Did I laugh cynically when I should not have? Did I send mixed messages?

Changing the tone of political discourse starts with each of us, I believe. You may have had "nothing" to do with either political party and what was going on, but you can positively influence the future. As a mother I love my family and want what is best for my kids; I try to remember that people on the other side of the political spectrum are mothers, too, who want what is best for their kids. Although we disagree with one another on how to get there, remembering that commonality pulls me back from crossing that appropriateness line -- most of the time, anyway. For all our differences, we do have something in common.

As a parent, I can make a commitment to my kids (and, in turn, society as a whole) to be better. I can be more careful and balanced in my political discussions, and I can be sure to be clear that I am disagreeing with ideas -- not a person's or a group's existence. When I hear people in my community expound the violent rhetoric I can say, no, that's not okay. I can respectfully, without stooping to that negative, nasty level, ask them to stop and consider their tone, and please return to respectful dialogue as an example to all our children and for a better future. I can take that small step.

Mental illness

Details about the suspect in the shooting indicate that he may suffer from some form of mental illness. While some would argue that anyone who shoots a crowd of people is insane, that dismisses the issue of mental health in our communities.

Mental illness continues to be stigmatized in our society. Calling someone "crazy" is a dismissive, fairly mild insult, but for the mentally ill, there is nothing to dismiss. Mental illness is scary. It's malady you can't see, but it is very real with serious consequences. Someone who looks completely normal from the outside could be seriously mentally ill. Funding of mental health care is poor at best; people who need the most help often can't get it. In addition, people who are truly going crazy, in a medical diagnosis sense, don't always know it. Whether they (or we) realize it or not, they rely on the interventions of others.

Many moms, myself included have experienced some level of post-partum depression, a mental illness. As the every day moms and celebrity moms alike can tell you, it is hard. Very hard. None of asked for or wanted to have a mental illness, and many of us experienced some level of embarrassment and prejudice because of it. Mental illness is a physical, body chemistry thing -- and often it can be treated. One can be exceedingly grateful for the blessings of a life and still be horribly, debilitatingly depressed. Many of us were extremely fortunate to be able to get help -- or have a friend or family member who intervened to help us get help. We're the lucky ones; that intervention and care helped us not turn an even darker corner in our heads. Although it's unclear at this writing whether the suspect actually has a diagnosable mental illness or not, and to what level others intervened, I think about that. There but for the grace of God go I? Maybe.

This is something that I can talk to my kids about. I can talk to them about what mental illness is, and what it is not. I can talk to them about separating the actions from the whole of the person, especially individuals as likely sick at this shooting suspect. I can talk to them about compassion for others, including the mentally ill. I can talk to them about intervening if friends start displaying erratic behavior, not to dismiss some of the weird stuff. I can help them not to stigmatize those with mental health issues.

I can reassure my kids that should they ever need mental health care, I will get it for them. I will do whatever it takes to help them. And I will love them, no matter what.

There is hope

Amid the horrible and the hard, there are glimmers of hope. Yes, there are.

I worry about the level of violence in our society, and I worry that we are becoming desensitized to the awful stuff. Violent images in media and video games, the tone of political dialogue... heck, even the evening news. There was a part of me that was relieved to see the horrified response to the shooting: I was relieved that there are others out there who are sickened and saddened by this level of violence, that I'm not the only one. That there are others -- many others! --  for whom the shooting wasn't, ho hum, another day, another death. Even amid the hard and awful and sad of Saturday, that gave me a glimmer of hope. We are not doomed yet.

And then I started reading about the heroes of the day, and I was encouraged. People who ran toward the shooting to try to stop it, instead of running away. People who administered first aid to the victims. People whose first thoughts were of helping, not of hiding. The most reassuring thing I can tell my kids about what happened in Tucson: there are heroes among us. There are strangers walking around who will do the extraordinary without a thought, without expectation of recognition, because it's the right thing to do. They didn't ask questions before they helped, they just did it. While we hope we never need them, and can't depend on them, thank goodness they are there. This is a reason to be optimistic. There is good out there -- and I think more good than bad. One person fired shots, but the number of people who stepped up to help? Too many to count. This is a part of the human spirit of which I am so very proud and grateful. There is reason to be hopeful for our future.

Does any of this truly make sense of what happened in Arizona? Not at all. In spite of a human desire to create order from chaos, there's no neat truth to be had here. No perfect resolution. But talking to my family about these issues and promoting understanding in my community is a way that I can, in a very small way, try to turn the horrible into something good and hopeful. I can't take away the pain and sadness of those injured, the grief of the families of the deceased, the anger and the confusion of so many, nor can I guarantee anything like this will never happen again -- but I can resolve to do better right here at home. It's a start, small though it may be, and I'm starting right now.

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