As the final days of 2012 trickle away, an uncommon emotional intensity hangs in the air in America. Something is happening here.
The country stands on the cusp of major change. Gun control is just one of the formerly taboo subjects that has come out of the political closet. Today, a majority of Americans support stricter gun laws, a majority support a more progressive tax system and most favor same-sex marriage. A majority of voters even support the idea of legalizing marijuana.
No topic has stirred more passion in recent days than the clash between two competing rights: the right to own guns and the right not to get shot. Americans feel the lingering sadness, confusion and anger surrounding a recent massacre of schoolchildren, stirred more by the outrageous, dumbfounding, Christmas Eve murder of firefighters responding to a call for help in New York.
Then there's that strange, unbecoming political show, the one with the ticking clock, known as the fiscal cliff. The contest over the budget sounds arcane, but it deals with a fundamental social value, the role of government in society, and the way the burden of financing ought to be shared.
Those are just the most immediate of the ongoing dramas adding stress to holiday dinners, energy to television shows and liveliness to coffee house debates.
The United States is reassessing matters that many thought had been settled. It wasn't very long ago that the views from the most conservative elements of the political establishment dominated the social agenda.
Since the turn of the century we had seen a steady turn toward lower taxes, a ban on even discussing gun control, a rising wave of anti-gay legislation and all manner of conservative legislation. America seemed left behind, ossified, as other parts of the Western world, which generally share America's culture and values, revised their views and rules on social issues.
In July, after the movie theater massacre in Colorado, President Obama unhelpfully, unnervingly, mused that "if there's anything to take away from this tragedy, it's the reminder that life is very fragile." This time, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, he found a more practical takeaway, launching a push to stop gun violence. Most importantly, the tragedy energized the growing majority of Americans who support stepped-up gun control. It also prompted the powerful NRA to push back, and we can expect an all-out campaign whose outcome is far from certain. But the battle has been joined -- and not just in Washington.
It took far too many killings, but the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary finally pushed the matter of gun rights one awful step too far, and the conversation changed.
People who have spent decades working tirelessly for change will no doubt want to correct the impression that all this change has come suddenly. Surely, gay rights activists, gun control organizations have toiled with only minimal victories as reward. In recent months, however, we have reached a tipping point.
It may have something to do with the media -- social media, television, the Internet -- providing a boost to the message, a message of human dignity and common sense. It certainly has much to do with demographics. Young people, growing up with new ideas, are picking up the torch of social change. UCN