The next set of gun sights focused on Tuscon won't be posted by Sarah Palin's interest group. No, the next party to set its sights on Tuscon will be the United States Government. Jared Loughner shot and killed a federal judge on Saturday, United States District Judge John Roll. He also shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who clings to life this afternoon. The killing of a federal official is a death eligible offense under federal law. Uncle Sam will take aim to make a loud and unequivocal statement.
Within moments of the shooting, folks were calling for Palin's political hide. Her angry rhetoric and her martial metaphors made this shooting all but inevitable, the chattering class said. Mr. Loughner is a monster, a maniac, a sick individual who does not reflect the reality of our lives, but the twisted fantasy of a disordered soul. We are not a land of violence, the pundits said. We must band together to decry both violent speech and violent acts.
Sarah Palin is not to blame for the shootings. Yes, she and her interest group opposed health-care reform. Plenty of Americans do not believe that the Government should pass laws requiring Americans to purchase a product from a for-profit industry. Indeed, this sort of cheek and jowl two-step, this marriage between Government and industry, once had a name. We called it fascism half a century ago.
The crime of murder is the simplest to prove. A person is guilty of it when they intend to kill and then kill. Mr. Loughner appears to have done just that. But the matter of his defense raises troubling questions an honest community ought candidly to address. To what degree are all of us responsible for Mr. Loughner's rage?
Griping about lying politicians is a national pastime. Federal prosecutors seem to spend as much time targeting those we elect as they used to spend on organized crime figures. Many Americans speak as though they believe that Government is another form of organized crime. Is it any wonder that some folks act on this rhetoric, creating a reality that shames us into having to confront the caricatures by which we live? Mr. Loughner chose to shoot, apparently. He elected to kill. Perhaps it is the isolated act of a madman. From afar it looks like he crossed a forbidden line, a line that begins with distrust, moves through frustration, progresses to rage and then culminates in acts untethered to any sense of common decency and community.
Mr. Loughner is a 22-year-old man-child rejected by the military. Did he aspire to train to kill so as to fight in a land who our Government told us had amassed weapons of mass destruction? If so, he sought to serve a lie. No one holds the liars accountable, however. At the polling place little people are shoved out of the way by big money donors told by the Supreme Court that corporations have the same right to spend on political campaigns as ordinary people. Yet corporations don't die. They live in perpetuity; they live, make money, and, with the aid of accommodating federal legislation, now potentially grow rich selling products we are compelled to purchase.
At his forthcoming trial, Mr. Loughner has little hope of showing that he was not the shooter. An outraged Arizona jury just might be itching to kill this man. Yet Arizona of all places presents the greatest hope for the success of what I will call the "political defense."
I am not suggesting that Mr. Loughner can succeed in avoiding a finding of guilty. His best hope is to address head on mitigation of the death penalty by making his trial one about a little man, one who had served his country, perhaps coming home after putting his life on the line, only to find that the American dream had been hijacked. Arizonans will be open to that message. The state has all but tried to opt out of the republic with its own aggressive immigration law: the rhetoric accompanying the passage of the state's immigration bill was steeped in fear of and suspicion of the federal government.
Mr. Loughner may well have taken all the steamy rhetoric a little too seriously. Perhaps he tried to start his own tea party, but rather than spilling tea into a harbor, he spilled blood in a supermarket. Mr. Loughner's acts aren't those of an isolated gunman. They express an inchoate rage that we will sweep under the carpet for a week or so, as the shock of this violence gathers and then fades away. It will only be at his trial that larger issues are raised: Those issues will not focus on excusing or justifying the shooting. No, the trial will focus on understanding this shooting.
I suspect an underlying truth will emerge: Mr. Loughner's rage is different in degree, but not in kind, from the anger many Americans feel about a Government grown detached from the lives of quiet desperation most Americans lead. Rhetoric and reality collided today in Tuscon: Reality won. It was a tragic confrontation that promises to tell us as much about ourselves as it does about Jared Loughner.