By Nathan Diament
Originally published in The Washington Post – On Faith, January 12, 2011
After Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson, some have pointed the finger at inflammatory political rhetoric.
Many singled out Sarah Palin’s now-infamous “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” tweet and her ‘Crosshairs’ campaign map, which included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ district, as a sign that some politicians have gone too far in stoking vitriol against their political opponents. (Since the shooting, Palin reportedly emphasized in an email that she “hates violence.”) Others reject any connection between the shooter, who does not appear to espouse any coherent ideology, and our current political climate.
What are the ethical and moral implications of incendiary political language?
In reflecting upon last Saturday’s tragic events in Tucson, I cannot add to the discussions that have saturated the media and blogosphere about the interplay, if any, between political rhetoric and criminal violence.
What I can dare to posit is that the event ought to bring Americans back to a discussion of “first principles” about the character of the society in which we wish to live – one principle of which must be the value we accord every human life.
Inasmuch as Rep. Giffords is a member of the Jewish community, I offer a bit of Jewish wisdom on this point.
In Genesis we read of the account of the first murder – a case of fratricide. This passage is most famous for God’s implicit rejection of Cain’s question “am I my brother’s keeper?” But before that verse, Genesis records God stating that he is confronting Cain because “the blood of your brother cry out to me…” But that English reading of the verse is not quite right. As the rabbis note in the Talmud, the verse, literally translated, reads “the bloods (plural) of your brother cry out to me…” And so the rabbis ask why is blood in the plural? Here is their answer:
“For this reason man [in the person of Adam] was created individually [as opposed to how God created many animals, birds or fish at one time]: to teach that whoever destroys a single life it is as though he had destroyed an entire world, and to teach that whoever saves a single life it is as though he had saved an entire world.”
In reflecting on the tragedy in Tucson, we must be repelled by the perpetrator of violence for he sought – and succeeded – to destroy entire worlds; of individuals, families and even a nation. But we must also be mindful of those who acted heroically – and succeeded – to save the lives of the victims; and saved entire worlds….including all of us….as well.