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A Fatal Shooting in Arizona

01/11/2011 11:37:28 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

What a shock it was to read about the fatal shooting in Arizona; 6 dead including a 9-year-old child and a Federal judge, thirteen wounded. The prime target was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat and a Jew. As of the writing of this blog, she is in critical condition having been shot at close range in the head. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik summed up many peoples’ feeling when he suggested that the vitriolic political climate of Arizona was surely in part to blame: “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous… .” (NYT)

What inspired such a bloody and tragic rage? It’s tempting to blame Tea Party activists or the overheated anti-government rhetoric of some in the Republican party, but that would be a cheap shot. However, I do think it is legitimate “to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge.” (NYT)

Jewish Tradition believes in the power of words. It was through words that the world was created – “And God said ‘let there be light’ and there was light” – and it is through words that the world is governed: remember Moses was part revolutionary and part Law Giver. We are a wordy people whose genius is arguably the many worlds we have created with words – the sea of Talmud, the vast oceans of learning in almost every discipline. We are a wordy people that understands the power of words to hurt and to heal.

Intensely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can be done through speech, the Talmud tells us that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse. The Talmud also suggests that being wronged with words is especially egregious because there is no way to take the words back once they have been spoken. Speech is compared to an arrow: once the words are released, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray. In the ultimate indictment of lashon harah/derogatory speech, the Talmud in Tractate Erchin 15b, compares lashon harah to murder.

Murder riding on the tide of political vitriol is not new to the Jewish world.
On Nov. 4, 1995, Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old Israeli resident of suburban Tel Aviv and law student at Bar-Ilan University, shot the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, as he was leaving a peace demonstration where 100,000 people had gathered to hear him and Labor leader Shimon Peres speak. When asked why he shot the Prime Minister, Amir said he was acting on his understanding of the laws of the pursuer wherein it is justified to kill as an act of self-defense. What’s especially chilling is that just before Rabin’s assassination, extremist rabbis of the far right in Israel had ruled that Rabin, because of his pursuit of the Peace Process, could be viewed as a ‘pursuer’ thus offering a justification for his murder. While some have questioned the direct link of the pursuer rhetoric and Rabin’s assassination, most agree that the vicious tone of the debate about the Peace Process at that time created an environment ripe for violence.

The power to hurt, even mortally wound, as well as the power to heal; words, how easy they flow off the tongue, but how hard they are to retrieve. A gun shot Yitzchak Rabin, a bullet pierced Gabrielle Giffords’ skull. Six others were gunned down dead and a total of 13 were wounded. Bullets, not words, did the literal damage but the haunting question we are left to ponder is whether, without the hateful speech prior to these hateful acts, would the guns ever have been loaded, would the triggers ever have been pulled.

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