Hope in the Midst of Tragedy: Reflections on Tucson

by Collin Tong (Thailand 1968–69)

THE TRAGIC EVENTS LEADING TO THE JAN. 8th rampage near Tucson, Ariz., that left six killed, and 14 wounded, and Representative Gabrielle Giffords, 40, in critical condition, left me shaken. Twenty-nine years ago, on Jan. 28, 1982, my older brother lost his life in the same manner, also by a deranged gunman, who happened to be his client.  It was deeply ironic, yet nonetheless tragic that Roland, a civil rights attorney who devoted much of his life to serving others, in East Harlem and then San Francisco, should lose his life in the act of helping others.

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

At the time of his death, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy penned this letter to me:  “The news article describing your brother’s long record of service to others in need was brought to my attention by Jerry Tinker on my staff, who was his classmate at the University of Redlands. It is more than tragic that a senseless act of handgun violence has now deprived others of the help your brother so willingly offered.  As a member of a family, which has been touched by handgun violence, I fully share your deep concern over the urgent need to control the proliferation of handguns in our society.  I am gratified to learn of your support for legislation I have introduced to help achieve this goal.”

The Tucson killings have left a searing wound in the national psyche causing many to ponder how the vitriol that so pervades our nation has led to this sad juncture.  On June 30, 2010, in the midst of the heated mid-term election campaigns, I wrote a guest column for Crosscut, a Seattle news magazine, reflecting on the acrimony surrounding the debates over immigration reform — a debate that continues to roil our national conscience. Little did I know then that the hate-filled rhetoric of last summer’s campaigns would foreshadow the sad events of this past weekend.

The toxic atmosphere in Representative Giffords’ congressional district in Tucson has already been the topic of endless media coverage and strident chatter.  Yet, truth be told, Tucson is only emblematic of what is occurring elsewhere in the nation.  Anger over illegal immigration, unemployment, and health care has provided fuel for conservative pundits and politicians to stoke the sentiments of a captive audience.  Immigration reform, in particular, has been one of the most incendiary issues for Tucson, which lies close to the Arizona - Mexican border.  It also was one of many volatile topics that Rep. Gifford’s campaign for reelection had to grapple with.

On April 23, 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan. Brewer signed the nation’s toughest bill on illegal immigration into law.  The new law would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give law enforcement officers broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.  Brewer’s decision reignited debate over immigration reform.  President Obama said the new law threatens “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.”

Civil rights groups denounced the law as a recipe for racial and ethnic profiling.  The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund predicted that the law would create “a spiral of pervasive fear, community distrust, increased crime and costly litigation, with nationwide repercussions.”  That fear was manifested last weekend in Tucson in the deadly shootings sparked by a deranged 22-year old man.

Given the acrimony of our national debate on immigration, the new Arizona law raises troubling questions about the extent to which Americans and public officials view matters of race and national identity as pivotal to the current debate.  Indeed the dominant images about immigration portrayed by conservative politicians and media appear to legitimize stereotypes of illegal aliens as hostile forces crossing over our borders.  Such images are polarizing for a nation already scarred by an economy in free fall, and civic discourse marred by name-calling.

“Images not only shape our perceptions, they also crystallize certain emotions and motivate us to act in certain ways,” said the late Roman Catholic theologian and ethicist, William C. Spohn. “They establish psychological borders to our moral community.  Moral community refers to the network of those to whom we recognize an ethical connection through the demands of justice, bonds of compassion, or a sense of obligation.”

“American fears and defensiveness about immigration arise from the threats posed by differences of race and class,” he said.  ”An expanding moral identification with others who were once perceived as different pushes back the boundaries of moral community.  We begin to appreciate the common ground beneath our differences.”  In my op-ed, I concluded:  “At the very least, our elected officials and conservative pundits would do well to recognize that welcoming the stranger and building hospitable community has deep roots in our nation’s past.”

Immigration reform, like the national debate over gun rights, health care, unemployment, gay rights, and abortion, is a barometer of our nation’s civic health.  At the Jan. 12th evening memorial service at the University of Arizona, President Obama spoke about his visit with Rep. Giffords at her hospital bedside that day.  Reflecting on the horrific events of the past weekend to a nation touched by that tragedy, he urged Americans “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

In eulogizing the six people who died and asking for the nation’s prayers for Representative Gifford and the survivors of Saturday’s shootings, President Obama called for a new era of civility.  In his moving address, he paid tribute to nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who had gone to meet Giffords at a public meeting that morning.  “We place our hands over our heart,” Obama said, to forge “a country that is forever worthy of her gentle happy spirit.”

A sense of moral community and compassion seems to be what is most needed in our national discourse.  Christina Taylor Green reminds us that our young people can often teach us that lesson best.  Five years after my brother’s murder, in 1987, my wife, Linda, and I established an endowed memorial scholarship fund in memory of my brother at my alma mater, the University of Redlands to support minority students planning careers in public service.  Twenty-three years later, the University has awarded tuition scholarships to over two dozen young, promising students of color, whose subsequent careers in helping others have since reaffirmed our family’s highest hopes and aspirations.

The recipient of the 2010 Roland Tong Memorial Scholarship, Shiori Fujishige, an international relations major from Hawaii, plans such a career, and will join the Peace Corps following her graduation this June.  Shiori’s desire is to teach or be involved in community development in Africa. Following Peace Corps, she plans to attend law school and devote her career to public service and work with disadvantaged clients, as my brother had.

“Your brother’s life of service to others has inspired me to pursue a similar path of serving and caring for others,” she wrote to me in a Sept. 20, 2010 letter.  “He was devoted to his community through his career as a minister and an attorney, while working for those less fortunate.”

In my fondest remembrances of Roland, and now in my grieving for Representative Giffords and those who lost their lives, as well as those whose lives have been deeply touched by this tragedy, one thing seems clear. I cannot help but believe that in spite of our current climate of divisiveness, there yet remains hope that young people like Shiori, similarly committed to serving others, will carry the torch and lift us from our despair.

Collin Tong is a Seattle freelance journalist and a past member of the National Peace Corps Association board of directors. He has received awards from the Washington Press Association and was a Michele Clark Fellow at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.  He is now a staff reporter at the International Examiner in Seattle.