Who is to blame for the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords? Press accounts make it clear a lone gunman pulled the trigger, wounding the Congresswoman and killing a federal judge and others at a Tucson supermarket on Saturday. But in the wake of this shocking shooting, folks press for deeper meaning. If Jared Loughner was but the occasion for the shootings, what were the deeper causes?
A fine piece in yesterday's on-line edition of The New York Times by Matt Bai sketched out the terrain with admirable elegance. Bai notes that both left and right have become infatuated with incendiary rhetoric in recent years. This rhetoric corresponds to a lack of civility, even tolerance, in political debate. Sarah Palin can place cross hairs over the congressional districts of those whom she wants voted out of office. The left, too, can speak to extreme. Bai notes a constituent's comments about Giffords after the Congresswoman broke ranks with liberal icon, Nancy Pelosi: Giffords, the constituent said, is "dead to me."
Putting aside the strained sense of equivalence -- the comments of a national political leader ought to be attended by a greater sense of gravitas than those of an unknown constituent -- Bai focuses on a larger issue: Does the recent shooting "mark the logical end" of a cycle of rhetoric, or does it mark "the begining of a terrifying new" era? Are we about to enter into a period of periodic violence much like that of the 1960s, when political assassination became a means of eliminating the charismatic voices in our society even as riots engulfed cities?
I am reluctant to confess my first reaction upon hearing that a member of Congress had been shot. I was home, on a snowy Saturday. My wife reported the shooting. "Well, one down and 434 to go," flashed through my mind. (There are 435 members of the House of Representatives.) I have no intention or plan to shoot anyone. I have no social program in mind to replace an unjust society with one in which a better life is possible for all. Even so, I have deep misgivings about our national political life. The rhetoric of those we elect does not seem to correspond to the reality of the lives I see all around me. All these politicans out there flapping their gums while people around me struggle to keep their homes, look for jobs, or otherwise try to live an American Dream that no longer seems within reach. The political class seems hypocritical. I would not be sorry to see them all fade away. Mr. Loughner's act of violence seemed almost understandable.
No sooner had the shootings taken place yesterday than the political machines of both right and left were set in motion. The left blames Palin, a misreading of the Second Amendment and an irresponsible political culture that replaces reason with rage. The right responds defensively, some saying that there can be no accommodation with the left. The soul of a nation is at stake, some argue.
As details emerge about Mr. Loughner it becomes clear that he is a troubled young man. He appears disorganized, perhaps schizophrenic. Sure, there is political content to what he has written, but the content must be teased from a paranoid context that suggests his moorings to the external world we all share are at best tenuous. There is a very real possibilty that this young man was insane at the time of the shootings. John Hinckely shot Ronald Reagan to impress an actress; did Mr. Lougher shoot a Congresswoman to try to impress Thomas Paine?
But some part of me prefers to think he is not simply insane. Mr. Loughner is no hero. Nor did he fire a shot to be heard around the world: Tucson is no Concord, no Lexington. But however vulnerable Mr. Loughner's mental illness may have made him, he was still one of us. He took our rhetoric, a rhetoric that reflects more than an easy and facile irresponsibility with the use of language, and he acted. His actions require a searching analysis of our political rhetoric. What should come of this is not a commitment to pacified speech: speech does not arise in a vacuum. We need to understand why our rhetoric has turned violent; what is it about the reality so many of us live day by day that makes rhetorical rejection of the status quo appealing? Why so much talk of apocalypse? What is so dissatisfying about today that we experiment in words with visions of a new world, or the end of all worlds?
Jared Loughner acted. He shot. He killed. He did so from within the context of a web of words that ramble and reflect an unhinged mind. But the words he used to try to explain what he did are not words he created. They are words he borrowed from us. That he lacked the restraint most of us possess makes him different in degree, but not in kind, from us. Jared Loughner took our words and followed them through to their logical conclusion. That we stand back and behold his acts in terror should frighten us not just because someone could do such a thing. No, the real terror should come of realizing just how close to the edge the consequences of our rhetoric have taken us. Rather than pointing fingers at Mr. Loughner, we ought to be asking what this conflct between rhetoric and reality says about all of us.