Up and down, round and round. Horses flash, faces flicker through mirrors, a clown leers with gaping mouth at the brass donuts tossed his way. Although I am, in essence, a roller-coaster girl, I’ve always been fascinated by merry-go-rounds. From such a simple premise – wooden animals revolving on a platform – we receive a host of emotions. The merry-go-round is the quintessential ride of childhood. Picture proud parents standing next to a strapped in infant, barely old enough to sit upright, a lollypop clutching child, giggling teens leaning toward each other, or – in defiance of gravity – out over the edge of the platform. Yet, for all its candy-coated pleasure, the merry-go-round holds an air of menace. How many of us have lost track of our spinning child as the music stops? Think of the scenes in TV and movie thrillers – the flashing face of menace flickering through the mirrors, the suddenly empty horse.
Amusement park rides are easy metaphors for life. You stand in line, pay your ticket, and embark with the rest of humanity on the ups and downs. When the ride stops, you get off – no choice. Here I choose rollercoasters. I prefer the wild exhilaration of a car hurtling through peaks and valleys so fast that it’s impossible to catch my breath. The thought of circling sedately, returning to my start point over and over, exhausts me. Life on the circle is tempting, predictable, and it tantalizes with the elusive promise of the brass ring. For most of us, however, the ring bounces off the nose of the clown, or maybe his ear, no matter how many times it is thrown. Yet, we try again, and again – stuck in the same act, the same argument, the same message, pounding our heads against the same wall – as we revolve in an endless, tail-chasing circle.
A few months ago, I published an article entitled Extremism? over at Blogcritics. Upset by current events and an exchange with a friend, I wrote an opinionated piece calling for those who espouse hate and violence to be held accountable for their words. I wasn’t the first to do this, and as the last few days have shown, certainly won’t be the last. I stand by each of the beliefs listed in that piece. Yet, today, I can’t help wondering if I missed something, if I, like so many before and since, fell into the trap of the brass ring. If I throw it enough times, I’ll hit the clown’s mouth. If I yell loud enough, my point will be heard.
That this country is angry seems undeniable. Anger begets violence, and violence anger. Anger is not always a bad thing, and sometimes, even violence can catalyze the best in humanity. But, only if we can step off of the merry-go-round. Today the calliope shows no signs of droning to a halt; the up-and-down exchange echoes without rest. Perhaps the accelerating punditry grows from our now 24 second news cycle. It is impossible to pause for breath or a nod of understanding when everyone from blogger to newscaster can broadcast an instant headline. And this is the change our last decade has wrought. For a moment, however brief, following 9/11, there was a pause, a collective inhalation, a nano-second of unity.
A little girl born on that day lost her life in this most recent national tragedy, and our nation has lost the bitter lesson of her birthday. To be fair, the moment of national unity crumbled shortly after the attacks of 9/11, before the smoke could clear or the rubble could settle, but there was a moment of pause. Fast forward to this week, opinion pieces hit the ether concurrent with the news of the bullets sprayed in Tuscon. Liberals blame Conservatives for incendiary speeches. Conservatives accuse Liberals of politicizing tragedy. Gun sales spike as fears of government control are waved like battle flags. Gun control lobbyists point fingers lax firearms laws. And the merry-go-round spins.
The universal question echoes. Why? Why do bad things happen? There must be a cause, an inciting event, someone or something to blame. We must know why. This is human nature; somewhere, we believe that if we can understand events, we can control them. And so we spin, pointing fingers, throwing ring after ring. To this point, no one knows the synapses that fired in Jared Loughner’s brain as his finger hit the trigger. It is doubtful that even he understands the full series of thoughts and emotions that led to his actions. How many of us know why we do anything?
I still believe that we are responsible for our words. The right to free speech comes with a price. Freedom has consequences. But, we are all responsible for our words. The anger that I have seen fly from my cohorts to the left of the political spectrum fuels the merry-go-round just as much as any invective from the right. Whether the tragedy in Tucson was the detached unhinging of a single mind or the result of a turbulent national feud is almost irrelevant. Why doesn’t matter if it won’t change the what. The gun was fired. The wounded will bear scars forever. The dead are dead. The what can’t change. We may never know the why. Groups and interests will continue to scream into the void. That is the nature of our mixed and mixed-up nation. But, on an individual level, each of us can make the choice to step from the merry-go-round, to stop throwing useless trinkets at an impossible target, and to listen to others, and to ourselves. Perhaps if enough of us tune out the calliope of the howling mobs and ask, “what do I really feel, believe, want” the ride will slow down a bit.