I was struck by Mayor Gavin Buckley’s response to the shootings at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, on Thursday. The Australian immigrant to the U.S. spoke passionately about the need for us all to get along. In the wake of a terrible tragedy, this leader found the presence and strength to deliver a message of reconciliation in response to an act of hate.
He offered more than prayers. He offered more than a statement to remember the victims’ families in our hearts and minds. He offered a path forward, eloquently and clearly.
“This can’t be the new normal. We can’t just keep on accepting this. We can’t just move on to the next massacre,” said Buckley in one of several television interviews he gave in the aftermath of the shooting. He added, “We have a president who makes it ok to be angry, to be mad. We shouldn’t be mad all the time. We need to take a deep breath and realize that we’re all neighbors and we might disagree on things, but we’ve got to stop hating one another.”
His reaction struck me as a rare response in these times. In our political environment, leaders like to take their opponents down publicly with an added dose of vindictiveness. And it’s no longer enough to battle the opposing party. Some politicians demean their opponents' supporters as well, calling the motives and intelligence of citizens into question and urging them to be disrespectful to one another. Hillary Clinton referred to Trump’s supporters as deplorables. Donald Trump routinely attacks his perceived enemies on Twitter (the list is too long to repeat here, but here’s a sampling).
We all know the common storylines that we battle over every day. They are repeated often enough that they’ve become tropes: immigrants are criminals; the media cannot be trusted; our institutions are corrupt; the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt.
Stories about immigrants hit particularly close to home. It’s not an abstract belief to me; it’s a theme that pulses through my body and defines my life. My 25-year-old grandmother arrived from Sicily nearly a century ago with all of her personal belongings in a single wooden trunk. Considered an old maid back home, she was shipped off to live with relatives in Rochester, New York. The hope, no doubt, was that she would find a better life, maybe even a husband in a land where all dreams are possible.
She did find a mate in my grandfather who emigrated from Italy at 18 as part of an old-fashioned gap year. His father, a successful businessman, insisted that my grandfather spend one year in America as a sort of finishing school. The story goes that my grandfather’s parting words to his father were, “See you in a year, Dad!” My great-grandfather responded, “No, you won’t. Once you see America, you'll never come back.” My grandfather never returned to Italy. To this day, he remains the proudest American I’ve ever known.
I was reminded of this when listening to a recent piece on NPR’s Weekend Edition, which included interviews with new American citizens who’d come from Mexico and Venezuela. They spoke reverently of America and the life-changing ability to seek a better life and pursue opportunities not available in their former countries. They expressed such optimism about America. They didn’t talk about fighting with people who didn’t share their beliefs; they simply fought to be here.
Even with their positive views of what America represents, immigrants have found themselves engulfed by extreme hate-based rhetoric. If we are to believe the talking points, many immigrants are criminals who must be kept out with an impenetrable wall. They are often drug dealers and sex offenders. Yet the reality is far different; most face meager existences and come to America for better economic opportunities. Others live in dangerous circumstances or are persecuted and need to flee for their own safety.
Immigrants risk everything to start over in America because of what our county represents: freedom. But what is freedom in America today? A woman's right to choose? A man's right to marry whomever he pleases? A voter's right to cast a ballot without encumbrances in a district that is not gamed for a specific result? Many Americans seem to have forgotten that freedom is an elastic concept. It must fit many needs, not just our own.
Instead, Americans are seeking freedom their way—and they want to impose it on everyone else. We jeer loudly when different viewpoints are expressed. We seem to think that if we hate hard enough, yell loud enough, and declare the other guy wrong, we can silence our opponents (our oppressors?), and the American dream will be ours.
Can we only feel optimistic about American values when our side wins and the other side loses?
We’ve entered a dangerous cycle of hate masked as righteousness. Our fondest hopes seem linked to suppressing the fondest hopes of others. We’ve abandoned the art of listening and compromise; key ingredients in the great American experiment. Instead we shame each other publicly; we even kill each other. This time five journalists were slaughtered in the Capital Gazette offices in Annapolis. A year ago, Republicans were shot on a baseball field outside Washington, D.C.
It took an Aussie immigrant, Mayor Buckley, to remind us of who we are and how to break the cycle. There must be a “live and let live” philosophy. We can’t have our own way all the time. We can’t expect others to live by our rules. The rules must be loosely framed to accommodate all Americans regardless of race, creed, or religion. We must be the lighthouse sending steady beacons of optimism, even to those who do not share our beliefs.
Pat Furgurson, a reporter at the Capital Gazette, may have summed it up best. After a police press conference in Annapolis, he was asked if he had any words to share with others. The Guardian reports that he choked up a bit then replied, “What’s so wrong about peace, love, and understanding?” Then he presumably went back to do his job, informing the public about local events in his Maryland community and, when warranted, speaking truth to power.