Editorial: Mourning in America

Spirit, Guns and False Equivalency
by Denis G. Campbell

Ali, a hospice care nurse from California, was a 9-11 1st responder. As soon as planes were cleared to fly, she was aboard the 1st jet from San Francisco. She jetted across the country and was there at ‘The Pile’ (we call it Ground Zero, rescue workers coined this name). She consoled, listened to and counselled terrified United Airlines flight crew members on the flight to New York. Ali never just sits back, watches and waits, she immediately jumped into action and spent two weeks of her ‘vacation’ in activities best read about here as Part One and Part Two. When you listen to her speak, her voice cracks and rasps from the effects of the toxins ingested during those first selfless days. She carries the scars but was luckier than many physically working on The Pile.

Her writings and recollections of that time are about a spirit of everyone coming together from across the globe to help. She marvels at the multitude of kindnesses New Yorkers showed each other and those who came to help. Everyone wearing an ID badge and caked in smoke, clay and soot had an all-access free pass anywhere in the City. Taxi and limo drivers sat silently for hours in queues and took workers leaving 16-hour shifts anywhere they needed to go, for free. The outpouring of kindness and love, gratitude and respect overwhelmed her.

On this international day of mourning in Arizona, where is that uniquely American spirit of help, kindness and respect that existed in the USA during those days immediately after 9-11? We are 100-hours removed from an unspeakable tragedy that placed a Congresswoman’s life in jeopardy, altered twenty sets of additional lives forever and indeed took the lives of six, including a nine-year-old girl.

Why then is it OK that everyone has retreated to a default ass-covering or -whupping state where the rhetoric and false equivalency are as toxic and poisonous as the air was in the initial days around ‘The Pile?’ Have we learned nothing nine-plus years on but fear and mistrust of each other? Can we not see where this is headed? What can we do to stem the tide of hatred, bigotry, racism and intolerance permeating all levels of political and societal discourse?

A Twitter DM broke the news and I was immediately watching CNN, BBC and MSNBC, live-blogging and looking for positive news to be found. I had a selfish reason. Two very dear political activist friends live in Tucson and were not reachable by phone. I was tied up in knots for most of that evening (it was evening in the UK) worrying for their safety as this is precisely the type of ‘meet and greet’ event they would attend. I was relieved later that evening to get an e-mail saying “we are fine,” they were at an opera matinee and unaware of the tragedy.

I called around to many of the people I’d interviewed from stories over the last several years on Arizona elections. Most were very politically active and I wanted to see if everyone I knew was safe. When I reached one gentleman his initial response troubled, then deeply worried.

As context, he was an invaluable technical resource and after viewing a photo of several team members he sent to me, he nonchalantly asked, “ever wonder why I carry that small purse-like bag?”

“No,” I replied.

“I have a concealed carry permit here and my .45 is in there.”

Silence on my end. The silence was one of shocked misunderstanding.

I never grew up around guns and have no opinion about them except perhaps it is clear there are far too many of them in the USA. Our family were not hunter-gatherers so aside from seeing one holstered to a police officer’s belt, I had, thankfully, never been near them and still have little desire to know more about them.

Too, in a very powerful opening segment, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Monday night said the USA is “a nation of about 308 million people and there are about 270 million guns.” That works out to about 90 guns per 100 people and the USA dwarfs 2nd place finisher Yemen at 61 guns per 100.

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Back to the gentleman’s telephone response. After we talked about our mutual friends and hoped everyone was OK, he said, “Ohh this is bad Denis, really bad. People are going to try and come after and blame the guns. This is really bad, guns always get the blame.”

Well almost always.

Yes, I would wonder as Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones Magazine did, how different might things have been Saturday if the ammunition clip was limited to 10-bullets vs. the 31-shots he emptied into the sitting crowd with startling efficiency. Back during the George W. Bush presidency there was a holdover Assault Weapons ban that both he and Congress allowed to expire in 2004. Then, a 31-round clip would have been illegal to own but not now. And one could argue that if he was determined enough, he would have been able to find one.

The political high-stepping and back-pedalling on this issue though would make the University of Ohio drum major (who dramatically leads the marching band in the spelling of script Ohio), look pedestrian. From the far left directly blaming Sarah Palin to the far right calling out President Obama’s power grabs, the media and blogosphere wasted no time ratcheting up the rhetoric and false equivalency. If your show scored a R vs L UFC-style cage fight debate for equivalency and moral superiority, it was ratings and YouTube heaven.

It also served as kerosene poured directly on an already raging fire. There’s been enough lunacy on all sides to fuel this for the next several years and election cycles.

Pima County’s Sheriff Dupnik said it best, “free speech is a right but words have consequences.”

The argument, if nuanced, serious and thoughtful has a healing effect. If we return to dialectical business-as-usual, we’re no further along than where we started. As was said in a headline a few hours ago on this website, it’s time for all sides to act and behave responsibly vs. pointing the finger of blame. We’re all responsible and we all have to fix this mess. As a wise master once said, “every time you point a finger at someone else, three fingers on your own hand point directly back at you.

Me, I want to get to know more people like Ali and Daniel (the aide whose quick, quiet and determined medical triage saved the Congresswoman’s life). Seems we could all learn more from spending time talking with them than just listening to hate.

(I’ll be on BBC-2’s am.pm discussing the Arizona tragedy and failing political discourse at 11:30 am today.)

Denis G Campbell View more

Denis G Campbell
Denis G. Campbell is founder and editor of UK Progressive magazine and co-host of The Three Muckrakers podcast. He is the author of 7 books and provides Americas, EU and Middle Eastern commentary to the BBC, itv, Al Jazeera English, CNN, CRI, MSNBC and others. He is CEO of Monknash Media and a principal with B2E Consulting in London. You can follow him on Twitter @UKProgressive and on Facebook.


  1. I am very moved, Denis, that you would choose my 9/11 memoir as a lead-in for your most compelling editorial. I just cannot forget how truly wonderful it felt to be part of a larger consciousness focused on what unites us rather than divides. Those extraordinary days and weeks were so precious – and all the more so now that they were but ephemeral moments too soon forgotten.

    Political rhetoric has become the monstrous ‘elephant in the room’ that most brushed aside as harmless. While the young man who committed this terrible act in Arizona is most likely suffering from some form of psychosis, it is clear that the unrelenting onslaught of hate-filled speech by people in leadership positions has lent a perverse legitimacy to such horrendous actions.

    Your writing is thoughtful and thought-provoking and speaks of a genuine commitment to elevating us to a level of humanity we once embodied but have sadly forgotten.

  2. The first two paragraphs about Ali’s experience after 9/11 are the only parts of your piece that make sense. You decry the political arguments and guns but you don’t highlight the central problem that must be faced if “fixes” are to be implemented. Political discourse is toxic to be sure but less now than during our early days when founders like John Adams and others regularly attacked opponents much more stridently than happens now.

    The best and most productive thing I have seen written about this tragedy is one in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Torrey. He blames and I believe rightly so, the fact that in the 1960s we closed down most of our state mental hospitals.

    Where have many of those people ended up? In prisons where they can learn more violent skills from the inmate population. He sites a 2007 study by the U.S. Justice Department found that 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates suffer from mental illnesses.

    This is the real problem that must be addressed and diatribes like your cheap shots at the opposition’s political stance that ignores the even worse rhetoric from your side of the argument is not helpful.

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