Wisconsin shooting and its violent echo around the world

It is feeling pretty rough out there: the Wisconsin and Colorado massacres, a civil war in Syria, killings in the Sinai. These violent events call leaders and individuals to acts of moral courage, and to remember what we have in common with each other.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin react at a news conference in Oak Creek, Wis., Aug. 6. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'It remains unclear whether [gunman Wade Michael Page] thought his victims were Muslim – a common mistake in America brought starkly into view in recent days. But hate needs no clarification.'

Gun massacres in a Colorado cinema, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a border post in Egypt and a crowded church in Nigeria. Suicide bombings in Kabul and Yemen. Civil war pounding the capital and other key cities across Syria.

It is feeling pretty rough out there.

But let’s not forget the continuum of progress in civilization, or as Martin Luther King Jr. repeated: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

While these events reflect vastly disparate causes and contexts, they all point urgently to a need for leaders and individuals to walk along that arc – by showing greater moral courage and compassion in two distinct yet interlacing spheres of thought and action.

The first is policy. The massacres in Colorado and Wisconsin, which unfolded just two weeks apart, elicited empathy from political leaders in the United States and a brief pause in an otherwise personally bitter campaign season, but neither attack has prompted either President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney to renew a national discussion on guns and violence.

Side-stepping a "third rail" political issue during an election smacks of Obama’s off-handed comment to then-Russin President Dmitry Medvedev in March that “I’ll have more flexibility after the election.” Voters and those directly affected deserve more. Two tragedies in two weeks beg leadership now. 

In Egypt, Sunday’s raid on an Israeli border post in the northern Sinai that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers provides an early, difficult test for newly installed President Mohammed Morsi. A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi is by feather an Islamist. He has already extended his hand to his Hamas counterparts in the Gaza Strip.

But Mr. Morsi is now a head of state – and the Egyptian Sinai, which has sheltered terrorist elements for years. The area is fraught with complexity, posing security sensitivities for Israel and economic links for Palestinians in Gaza.

Morsi has vowed to track down the assailants. But the attack also poses a stark choice between party and geopolitical interests: Withdraw Egypt’s cooperation with the Israeli blockade of Gaza, as he stated he would, or reaffirm a vital peace treaty with Israel at a fragile time for the region.  Assisting Palestinians and ensuring security in the region are not mutually exclusive.

The Syria crisis, meanwhile, points a moral finger at China and Russia – more obviously the latter, an active ally of the Syrian regime.

Moscow’s stubborn support for the violent and beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad helped precipitate Kofi Annan’s frustrated resignation as UN peace envoy last week. Along with China, Russia blocked concerted action through the Security Council – a stance increasingly hard to justify against the backdrop of Assad’s brutal response to what started as a peaceful rebellion. China and Russia have played the outlier role for years, blocking joint international action on a raft of sensitive security issues. But as Syria shows, no advantage can excuse the wanton slaughter of innocent people by their own government.

The second sphere for action is, well, us. States are usually slow to redefine interests, often rightly so, and politicians are calculating even in the best of circumstances. But civilization advances through individual and collective thought and action at least as much as it does by the exercise of political power.

Sikhism rejects discrimination by caste and teaches equality. It joins with Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in the recognition of a single creator. Important theological differences distinguish between and within these traditions, but they all share a love for God and for justice, peace and compassion. But so much of modern conflict masks the commonality of such principles held by people around the world. 

Four years ago, detractors of Barack Obama angrily – and falsely – derided this relatively unknown presidential candidate as “a Muslim” and “an Arab.” Earlier this year, a woman in a political rally referred to Mr. Obama as “a monster.”

The president’s rival has faced similar scorn. Some Americans are deeply skeptical of Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith, questioning his Christianity and morals and casting suspicions on his motives. Such attitudes should have little place in what should be a dignified contest of ideas for a noble calling.

Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple and opened fire as families were gathering for a day of worship. It remains unclear whether he thought his victims were Muslim – a common mistake in America brought starkly into view in recent days. But hate needs no clarification.

Deep concern and care for the victims and their families and communities in Aurora, Colo., and Oak Creek, Wis., need not prevent a forgiving thought for the troubled young men who turned so horribly on innocent people. Or, for that matter, a suicide bomber. That level of desperation deserves a more constructively compassionate response. Society will not rid itself of ignorance, fear, and despair through retribution, as we see over and over again – not least, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our swelling global population requires cooperation rather than conflict. Security, whether within a community or across borders, ultimately rests on the hard work of finding our good in each other. There is far more to what unites humanity than what divides it – common aspirations for a better life, the dignity of work, the satisfaction of accomplishment, the hope or faith in something higher than ourselves and, of course, love.

That commonality is worth more of our emphasis, from the world’s leaders and from each one of us.  

Kurt Shillinger was a national political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and Africa Correspondent for The Boston Globe.

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