OUT OF TIME JANUARY 24, 2011
Among the many thoughts I've had about the shooting of those unfortunate people who went to a supermarket on a Saturday morning to meet with their congresswoman, I've been stuck by how hard people have tried to create meaning out of the mayhem. For some observers, things as seemingly insignificant as a birth date—in this case, the birth date of a nine-year-old girl—feel heavy with significance, if only we knew how to interpret them. I, for one, was moved, though I did not know exactly why, when President Obama, in his Tucson memorial speech, solemnly reminded us, that "Christina was given to us on September 11, 2001." What followed was an invocation of hope, but I couldn't help wondering why the president had chosen the prophetically resonant phrase, a child is given to us. Did he believe that this particular girl was given to us (by God?) as a compensation for all those who were lost on that miserable day? Was he somehow intimating that the date of her birth had destined her to a particular saving future? All the machinery for providential interpretation was in place, but to no avail. The most that President Obama could do was to observe—and it was widely remarked in the media—that for a nine-year-old child, Christina was unusually civic-minded and had recently been elected to her student council. Although he did not draw any connection between her birth date and her destiny, her mother did explicitly though in a more quotidian manner when she told news organizations that "she was very interested in politics since she was a little girl. I think that being born on 9/11 had a lot to do with that."
In the date of Christina's birth and the bitterly cruel circumstances of her end, a child's private life and the events of the larger world collided two times over. This uncanny, haunting symmetry, marked as it is with fateful overtones straight out of Greek tragedy, also feels pregnant with meaning, though what exactly still remains to be revealed. I have to say that I was puzzled when I read that New York City Fire Department representatives brought the flag that survived the World Trade Center attacks to Arizona for the express purpose of flying it at the church of Christina's funeral. They did this, according to ABC World News, as "a tribute to a young girl who was born on the day the Twin Towers fell and died in another tragedy outside of an Arizona supermarket." But what is the link between the two tragedies? Do the men who sent the flag from New York and those who raised it at the Christina's funeral believe that the murderous political violence on her birth date was somehow propelling Christina to her fate, a fate that was fulfilled with what, at times, is treated like murderous political violence—the target was Congresswoman Giffords and the assassin will be prosecuted under federal statutes. This, of course, is highly unlikely, for as we know, the shooting is more often treated as the work of a madman, which breaks, if these two events are to be associated with something like Greek tragedy, the necessary cosmic link between them and, in consequence, turns the flag into a totem of sheer coincidence.
And then I found myself thinking about a softer version of fate that was half-suggested by Christina's mother: Because Christina was born on September 11, she was interested in politics and this somehow explains or, in more prosaic but still cosmic-tinged terms, put into motion the course of events that placed her at Congresswoman Giffords's informal Saturday morning meeting. This, I thought, is the kind of speculation in which many of us indulge when we have been in an accident; we re-play the haphazard events of the day, noting if only we had done this or that differently, we would not have ended up where we were at the time of the accident and thus would have escaped what retrospectively takes on the appearance of fate, but what is really nothing more than randomness, bad luck, sheer coincidence. Yet, as I write these words, I feel increasingly discomfited, as if my own quasi-fatalist speculations are a kind of superstitious, mental equivalent of the firemen sending the World Trade Center flag to Tucson.
If, in these attempts to find or bestow meaning on the shooting of a nine-year-old girl, it is difficult to get anywhere with what is left to us of providential or tragic schemes of explanation, when it comes to the Tucson shooting itself, it has been equally difficult to get very far even with rational schemes of causation, like the one offered by Pima County Sheriff Dupnik, who has been a lawman for 52 years: that the increasingly "toxic" political environment—"the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous"—contributed to the shooting of a congresswoman who supported the national health bill and a chief federal judge who made an unpopular decision regarding illegal immigrants. Both had received death threats; Judge Roll had been placed under 24-hour protection of the U.S. Marshals Service and the glass front door of Representative Giffords's office had been shattered, perhaps by a bullet. What is more, Representative Giffords was on Sarah Palin's notorious, democratic "hit-list" map and Giffords had spoken out against it, warning that incendiary words and images have consequences. Given that this is the world in which we actually live, the most plausible explanation for the mayhem would have been that a right-wing extremist group—"Patriot" groups, for instance, increased 244 percent in 2009—or a true believer acting on his own carried out this assassination and tried to kill as many innocent bystanders as possible, suicide-bomber style (without the suicide). Everything was in place for this scenario. That is why Paul Krugman, in his immediate response to the horrible news, announced that he was "expecting something like this atrocity to happen" and why so many perfectly rational people felt the same way.
This understanding of how such atrocities happen, however, has proven empty. The consensus today is that the Tucson shooting was the senseless act of a lunatic and those of us who confidently read the signs in Krugman's way are now in the position of the mad narrator in Nabokov's Pale Fire, who, in his painstaking, fantastical interpretation of a 999-line poem of a murdered neighbor/imagined double, keeps finding meaning where, in truth, there isn't any. The horrific mass shooting, I am supposed to tell myself, was nothing more than the act of a lunatic, signifying nothing, utterly absurd. And this is how Representative Giffords's forum with its homey name, "Congress on Your Corner," that terror-filled Saturday morning is starting to feel, now that providence, fate, and finally, cause-and-effect relationships have lost their powers of elucidation. All we are left with is the standard, all-service, therapeutic explanation of mental illness...
Nevertheless, even if the shootings were the act of a "sick" man, why, I ask myself, should we treat it as self-contained, completely cut off from the world we inhabit together? After all, it has long been recognized that pathologies do not spring full-blown out of a social vacuum, that they are best understood as heightened versions of what is considered normal. Loughner's reported obsession with the meaninglessness of words, with dreams, with government mind-control, like his gun fetishism, belong, albeit in exaggerated form, as much to our shared, common world as Palin's map of targeted congressional districts. Which made me think of the vicious pornographic imagination that is broadcast everywhere in our mass media and the ready-made, standardized forms of sexual humilation and brutality that those Army men and women at Abu Ghraib aped in their notorious S&M photographs and videos. Drawing precisely this kind of connection between what appears in our common world and how people think and act has long been the domain of conservatives (and more recently of radical feminists against pornography). Their sudden skepticism about its existence in the Tucson shootings puzzled me, as did its sudden discovery by liberals, who are typically, even habitually, dubious about such links.
Why this reversal in political alignments? And it did not stop there. Reading those passages in Palin's "blood libel" statement where she courageously announces that she will not be silenced, that, no matter what, she will exercise her constitutional right of free speech, I felt, at least for a fleeting, no doubt delusional, moment, as if I were reading a speech by the radical anarchist Emma Goldman or the radical sex reformer Margaret Sanger. And I felt equally disoriented when I read liberals, who typically cleave to the notion that the speech we hate is as entitled to protection as any other, demanding—indeed, threatening to pass legislation to ensure—that their opponents tone down their vicious, inflammatory rhetoric. Nothing, on any level, was lining up properly.
I had had enough of thinking about things about which thinking doesn't help and decided to go out. But, as I made my way through the treacherous patches of slippery ice on the sidewalk, the uncanniness of Christina's birth date again entered my thoughts. As an historian, I have long been interested in what I think of as retrospective knowledge, that what one notices about a person's life depends on how things turn out later. And then it dawned on me: If, as an adult, Christina had gone into politics and, say, achieved something significant in relation to Al Qaeda, then her birth date would have meant something in the way that President Clinton could say that he came from a town called Hope. But had she instead become the first woman to play major-league baseball, apparently a childhood dream of hers (she comes from a family of baseball players, she was the only girl on the little league team), it would not.
And that was that ... at least until I recalled that I had read that Christina was an "organ donor" (that awful phrase) and that her father has said that he would like to meet and embrace the girl who received his daughter's gift of life. Although his wish is understandable, I hope that it will not be granted, that adults will keep this child mercifully in the dark concerning the identity of her donor so that this child who gains this second chance at life will not be forced to shoulder the unbearable burden of becoming part of Christina's unhappy story simply because she had the good luck of being at the right place at the right time.
Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.