The Tucson shooting is a grim reminder of a systemic problem, one that the majority of this country has been unwilling to acknowledge. In mid-January, the Pew Research Center surveyed 1,000 adults 18 years of age or older living in the United States: 31 percent blamed broad societal problems for the Tucson shooting. Although many Americans rightfully recognize that mentally ill people with access to firearms pose a definite problem, not all have connected incidents of gun violence with the political message sweeping the nation right now. No, I don’t mean the anti-government message, and I don’t mean the anti-liberal message; I mean the message that violence is an appropriate way to affect change or express discontent with authority.

Just before he died, Martin Luther King, Jr. was working to peacefully fight poverty. He recognized that economic as well as social factors were preventing African Americans from reaching their full potential. While receiving frequent death threats, King traveled to Memphis in 1968 to aid a group of striking sanitation workers. These workers were frustrated by inhumane working conditions and had been pushed to the brink: they grew increasingly confrontational and a friend pulled King from the march before the workers began to riot.  King warned against violence as a means of affecting change, just as Gabrielle Giffords did recently in a speech following the passage of the Health Care bill. However, it was only after these figures were shot that their words took on particular significance.

It is this rhetoric of violence I wish to condemn. We cannot expect to change gun laws in the near future; according to investigations by The New York Times, the National Rifle Association has been extremely successful at stifling even the funding for basic research related to deaths by gun violence.  Despite this, we can still condemn violent rhetoric as a nation, regardless of party lines or views about access to guns.  It should shock us to the core that a nine-year-old girl died in a gun spree that primarily targeted a congresswoman. It should have shocked the national system back in 1963 on Birmingham Sunday when four young girls died in a hate crime. Such cases caused little more than a few shed tears and the typical we-saw-it-coming news articles, when they should have completely altered the tone of our political discourse.  If the Catholic League, with its supposed championship of free speech, can denounce David Wojnarowicz’s film “ A Fire in My Belly” as “hate speech” because it includes 11 seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix, then surely we can denounce Sarah Palin’s map displaying gun crosshairs corresponding to the names of politician “targets” as hate speech as well.

Now, more than ever, it is time to set aside party politics. Regardless of whether you keep a gun in a desk drawer or stand in the cold and sleet holding a photo of a shooting victim, you have a moral obligation to protest the trend of violent rhetoric.  We pride ourselves on being Americans because, unlike citizens of many other countries, we are not dominated by a culture of fear in which people use violence to silence opposing factions.  If we continue to accept the same environment that has made it possible for “extremists” and “nut jobs” to violently express their views, then we’re mirroring other countries where people are not free to speak their minds without getting a bullet in the chest.  In a recent New York Times article, reporter Don Van Natta, Jr. noted that 13 police officers have been shot in the United States since last Thursday.  If free speech and the maintenance of law and order continues to come under fire, then we will have to change our answer to Lincoln’s famous question about whether a nation “conceived in liberty… can long endure.”

Alperstein is a member of the class of 2014

Twitter