William Faulkner wrote that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past.
I'm a veteran of Arizona. As one of the state's leading peace advocates and organizers during the Vietnam War, I had more than my share of death threats, including one left on the accelerator of my car.
After President Nixon urged "hard hats" to attack peace advocates, the John Birch Society loosed drunken miners against us, and I was beaten by police and sentenced to prison for the crime of peacefully handing out flyers on a public sidewalk protesting against the use of anti-personnel cluster bombs against Vietnamese civilians.
Once, with my wife and friends, we almost camped on a remote Minute Man militia firing range in the northern part of the state. And, as I write, a dear friend is grieving the murder of Judge Roll, his childhood friend and praying for his other friends who were critically wounded in Jared Lee Loughner's terrorist attack.
Regardless of Loughner's mental condition, and whether or not the murders were part of a conspiracy, they grow out of historical, cultural and political contexts, some as recent as the vitriol and death threats in response to President Obama's election victory and others to still unresolved dynamics of the U.S. Civil War, the colonial settler culture of our Wild West, and our seemingly never ending imperial wars.
Would that Arizona were the only such ticking time bomb set by the extreme right. When the New Hampshire legislature convened earlier this month, its first decision was to mandate that people could carry guns into the State Capitol.
While not wanting to stoke unnecessary fears, as I look to the future, my deepest worst case scenario fear grows out of my experiences in Lebanon as the civil war was beginning there in 1975.
The rhetoric of the right-wing Lebanese Phalange and the Maronite leadership wasn't much more hateful or racist than here in the U.S., where fears of Latina immigrants pouring into the U.S. "to drop a baby" have replaced the 1920s yellow peril hysteria targeted against hard working Asians.
We're still a long way from a civil war, but it is difficult not to also draw links between the murders in Tucson and the assassination of Salman Taseer in Pakistan earlier last week. There, as here, a heavily armed and fanatical minority, backed by well established militarist and religiously conservative forces, is attempting to impose its will on society.
After responding to the initial trauma of the Tucson assassination attempt and the murders, there will be the temptation to view it as an isolated event that shouldn't really concern us -- especially those of us living in the more liberal East. In fact, if we are to retain anything like democracy, we must confront and transform the rising racism and the culture of violence which is reinforced by the power and influence of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex and by wars fought to enforce our society's assumption, and the Pentagon's doctrine, of "Full Spectrum Dominance."
We have other and better U.S. traditions, values and vision. We honor Martin Luther King Jr. for his vision of what the United States can become and his selfless courage in helping to make our society more just, peaceful and enduring.
We would do well to meditate on the similarities between the assassins' bullets in Memphis and Tucson and on the transformative words of King's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech which are equally applicable today:
"I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow."
Joseph Gerson is Disarmament Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee and Director of Programs of AFSC in New England.