“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia”)
With these famous words, Sherlock Holmes highlights a block in the way of clear thinking that people all too commonly stumble upon in their pursuit of truth. Right now, it would not be amiss to recast Holmes’ wisdom as a warning to the partisans dutifully acting their parts in the mock combats of America’s sham two-party system. With their implausible mutual recriminations, they have done their best to poison what is otherwise the common sense of grief and horror most Americans feel in the wake of the Arizona shootings.
It is scandalously self-serving for the elite’s partisan media and political claques to propagandize in advance of the facts. Invidiously they seek to foment prejudices intended to interfere with the public’s ability clearly to see and think through the significance of current events. They are like the wealthy widow’s spoiled offspring, gathered at the sickbed of their suddenly stricken mom. The doctors have barely begun their examination. Tests have been ordered, but no results are in. The siblings put on a great show of arguing amongst themselves about the cause and best treatment for her disease, though in recent years their destructive, spendthrift behavior has caused her nothing but heartbreaking worry and grief. Noisily they trade heated accusations and recriminations, each one striving to prove they care for her more than the others. Of course, their only real purpose is to make sure she doesn’t follow her decided inclination to name an interloper to oversee establishment of the medical research foundation slated to get what’s left of her estate.
The Arizona shootings are a national tragedy in the midst of a national crisis very likely to determine once and for all whether Americans continue to be a free people. Whatever the cause and explanation of the shootings, every such public assault against elected or other officials strikes a blow that could do permanent damage to the people’s ability properly to exercise and defend their sovereignty as a people. Though they risk the imputation of cowardice, some legislators are already using the shootings as an excuse to propose specious legislation purporting to protect themselves against any public expressions of disfavor or resentment that can, however perversely, be understood as an encouragement to violence. Apparently they think it more important to protect themselves from the fancied resentment of their constituents than to respect those constituents’ constitutional rights. Effectively deprived of the rights of speech, assembly and petition, the people will be in no position to consider and deliberate upon the choices essential to fulfilling their sovereign responsibility.
The openness and accessibility of their elected representatives isn’t just an optional gesture calculated to cultivate popularity. It is the concrete manifestation of the representatives’ dependence upon the authority of the people. It’s a reminder, woven into the fabric of American political life, that their apparent distinction from their fellow citizens is not the result of some intrinsic claim derived from birth, wealth or achievement. Public officials are no more justified in claiming personal security as an excuse to fortify themselves against exposure to the people than soldiers tempted by that excuse to flee exposure to actual or potential adversaries.
Participation in public life requires courage. Sometimes it means going unarmed as a diplomat into war zones with no protection except a promise of safe conduct that may or may not have reached all the combatants in the field. Sometimes it means plunging into a sea of people as a candidate, despite the nasty missives and barely disguised threats of violence it’s hard for most political figures to avoid. Since the earliest era of their independence, true statesmen have counseled the American people against thinking that we can eliminate the danger involved in the political process “by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence” (James Madison, Federalist No. 10). In the affairs of a free people there is no substitute for courage.
As we prayerfully react to the grievous events in Arizona, we should thank God that now, as in the past, among Americans there is no shortage of such courage. From the spiritual courage of the congressional aide who encouraged Rep. Giffords to hold on to life, to the courage of those who tackled and subdued the perpetrator, the extraordinary qualities of America’s hardy humanity prevailed against the shroud of death. Will our elected representatives take their cue from such Americans, rather than from the bad counsel of their personal fears or factional ambitions?
No laws, however restrictive, will ever make liberty safe or easy. Leaders who act as if they will are either deceiving themselves about liberty or lying to us about their real intentions. Like other sources of powerful energy (fire, electricity, the atom) freedom has enormous destructive potential. The key to preserving liberty, therefore, lies “not in our stars but in ourselves” (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii): that we remain hardy enough to face the risks; brave enough to react against the dangers; and determined despite our fears to live out the expectation of our constitutional heritage, so that by word and deed we teach new generations to do likewise. (But except we restore respect for the authority of the Creator God who made us free, can we really hope to remain so?)