From the windows of my little one-room hermitage at a retreat center on the west slopes of Tucson, I have spectacular views of the city below and also look out on the beautiful Saguaro National Park spreading endlessly west. It’s a lovely 30-acre enclave run by hospitable, liberal, ecumenical sisters and brothers of various Catholic orders. Every January when possible, I try to join them and others in the disciplines of silent prayer, contemplation, and stretches of solitude.
I confess having some of the country’s best winter hiking nearby isn’t lost on me.
Over the course of visits here, my life and politics have steadily moved right, even as the retreat staff seems to have moved left. Most people I encounter here during “talking meals” never met a war or any armed conflict they tolerated, or an illegal immigrant they didn’t embrace with open arms. I’ve been tempted to ask whether these kind pacifists approved of the Revolutionary or Civil Wars but have bit my tongue and let it go. So I’ve learned to keep to keep a tight lip and keep my motto in Tucson: stay contemplative and quiet with controversy.
I especially anticipated my sixth visit in a dozen years after a hectic 2010 with included several huge eastern snowstorms, including the Bloomberg blizzard over Christmas and the epic Nashville floods last May 1. I couldn’t wait to get to homogeneous weather, blue skies, and the peaceful environs outside this city that feels more like a big town with an eclectic, interesting population and traffic laws that allow legal U-turns without being arrested.
Little did I know a tsunami of unspeakable man-made horror awaited as I arrived hours after Jared Loughner fired his last bullets at Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ townhall meeting at the Safeway. In the days after, I and other somber retreatants joined this grief-stricken community and nation in almost non-stop prayers for the many victims, including the fallen, popular Congresswoman Giffords. Those prayers and well wishes for miraculous recoveries continue today.
Adding to the palpable grief here, however, long before any reliable motives were established there came a loud screeching cacophony of political invective of blame, projection, and shameful accusations — in the press and online — that grew more strident with each passing hour. It soon permeated even the boundaries of our quiet desert retreat: Blood was on the hands of the Tea Party movement, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, George Bush, Fox News, Roger Ailes, Tom Tancredo, Republicans, gun owners, and anyone else in the center or right of center who was minding their own business at the time, or working on their paying their federal income tax when the shots rang out.
Even the high sheriff of Pima County couldn’t resist entering the fray with a diatribe against Rush Limbaugh and talk radio. Words like blood, target practice, and fire suddenly became hate speech as some hysterics called for bans on free speech. By Tuesday, the war of words had attained Super Bowl status, as President Obama announced he was coming to Tucson to speak at the memorial service at the University of Arizona the following evening.
I confess, a fit of terror overcame me at this news. All this country needed now was for the current administration to get in the act of partisan political finger pointing and blame at a time like this. It would up the ante and cause irreparable harm, I feared. I shuddered to think what might happen next.
By late Wednesday the inflamed national rhetoric was out of control, even after one of Loughner’s old friends told ABC News earlier in the day that the shooting spree had nothing to do with politics. Period. But was anybody listening to anything but his own projected narrative?
Later Wednesday, as our retreat community gathered in a circle for the 5:30 blessing before dinner, the head brother announced we were all invited to the library afterwards to watch the 6 pm TV broadcast of the memorial service and Mr. Obama’s speech.
For the first time in years here, I felt I was behind enemy lines. Did I have the nerve to go to the library, knowing I would most likely be the only one who hadn’t voted for Mr. Obama, even if no one else knew that about me for sure.
I felt like an imaginary Scarlet C was plastered on my sweater.