It would be easy to blame the tragic shooting in Arizona on the ugly political rhetoric that has dominated our political discourse during the last two years. There can be little dispute, after all, that the majority of the most irresponsible outbursts of late have originated from right-wing elements of American society. It is tempting, therefore, to blame Sarah Palin, as some in the media have, for repeatedly using the phrase “Don’t retreat, reload” and for displaying on her Facebook page the crosshairs of a rifle scope targeting selected members of Congress, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the talented and popular congresswoman shot in the head during Saturday’s mass shooting. It is tempting as well to blame the treasonous statements of Sharron Angle, who talked of “domestic enemies” in the U.S. Congress during her Senate campaign in Nevada and “hope[d]” that “Second Amendment remedies” would not be necessary. It would be easy to blame the anti-government vitriol of such right-wing talk show hosts and commentators as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter, who routinely use heightened and emotionally charged language to fire up their audiences. But although violent rhetoric has become a part of the nation’s political climate, there is no point in laying blame on any political party or commentator for what happened in Arizona.
The fact is that we are a violent country, and a big country, and some of our citizens are mentally and emotionally unstable. America has a long history of political violence that has resulted in the assassinations of four presidents and attempts on the lives of six others. Credible threats are made against President Obama almost daily and extraordinary security measures are an unfortunate fact of life for virtually all modern U.S. presidents. Members of Congress, federal judges, prosecutors – all have experienced a rise in threat levels in recent years. We are a nation that loves its guns and we make it excessively easy for most anyone to obtain one, especially in Arizona. We depict gruesome violence in our movies, in our television shows and video games, and then feign surprise when mentally unhinged people act on those images. We live in a violent country that values individual freedoms – the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, the freedom of association – even at the expense of public safety.
Whatever demons or voices may have influenced Jared Lee Loughner, it was American democracy that was assaulted by his actions, American civic engagement that suffered the most severe setback. As Speaker of the House John Boehner eloquently stated in canceling this week’s legislative agenda, “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” Indeed, the tragedy in Tucson was an attack on the soul of this nation.
In my lifetime, this country has repeatedly experienced intense political divisions coupled with violence against our leaders. During the 1960’s, with the country angrily divided over Vietnam and civil rights, when civil unrest infested our cities, we lived through the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The 1970’s brought us Kent State and Watergate, school busing and Roe v. Wade, and the nation remained divided and angry. In 1972, presidential candidate George Wallace was shot in the stomach during a campaign rally. During a seventeen-day stretch in September 1975, two attempts were made on the life of President Gerald Ford. In 1981, John Hinckley stood outside the Washington Hilton and shot President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, Bob Brady, as they walked to the presidential motorcade waiting curbside. During the cultural wars of the 1990s, when we fought over gun control and abortion rights, right-wing extremists blew up abortion clinics and Timothy McVeigh committed the mass murder of 168 people in Oklahoma City.
That this country is divided on political and philosophical grounds is nothing new. From debates over federalism and state’s rights, slavery and civil rights, women’s suffrage and prohibition, Vietnam and abortion, we have been frequently split at the seams. In the 19th century, we faced secession and civil war; a century later, civil unrest, non-violent protest, and cries of “America, love it or leave it.” When John Kennedy went to Dallas in November 1963, Texas was awash in right-wing anger, fueled by the John Birch Society, over Kennedy’s handling of the Cold War, school desegregation, and federal interference with state’s rights. Leaflets containing the president’s photograph and “WANTED FOR TREASON” circulated throughout the city. When United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson visited Dallas earlier that fall, he was spit on by angry protestors. As ugly and grotesque as much of the political rhetoric has been recently – particularly during debates over health care and immigration – it is, unfortunately, not exceptional. It also is largely disconnected from the troubled miscreants who assassinate our leaders or fire assault weapons on crowds of innocent people.
We may never know precisely what motivated Loughner to shoot a popular and well-liked congresswoman, or why he opened fire on a group of innocent citizens, wounding fourteen people and killing six, including a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl, a congressional staffer, and three elderly citizens. Although he espoused anti-government passions, all we really know is that Loughner was a very troubled soul, a mentally disturbed man with a semi-automatic weapon and an abundance of ammunition. In the days ahead, we likely will learn of numerous red flags and warning signals that went unheeded, clues of his severe emotional instability, actions and words committed long before Saturday morning’s shooting that should have given many people pause.
Much of the commentary I have read so far on this matter has brushed over a principal issue: The refusal of this country to treat mental illness properly, and the lack of adequate mental health counseling in schools and communities. As long as we refuse to deal intelligently with mental illness, including its diagnosis and treatment, tragedies like what occurred in Arizona will continue to be repeated throughout the country.
The events in Arizona should also make us question, once and for all, the foolishness of a gun-culture which allows an apparently mentally unstable young man easy access to a semi-automatic weapon. A sensible and mature society places limits on who may lawfully own and carry such weapons. Yet we are the most armed nation on earth. With nine guns for every ten U.S. citizens, only Yemen, at seven guns per citizen, comes even close. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, since 1968 more than one million people in the United States have been killed with guns (accidents and suicides included). Is it any wonder that the majority of mass shootings happen in the United States? Is it surprising that we lead the world in gun deaths and homicides?
And yet, there are risks associated with a toxic political culture. Regardless of Loughner’s political influences and motives – his political views appear undisciplined and non-sensical, influenced perhaps by a variety of fringe ideologies – it would do us no harm to tone down our rhetoric, to refrain from speech that blames and accuses, that treats our opponents as not just wrong but evil, and instead discover words of hope and understanding. While ugly political rhetoric and acts of incivility in politics have been a part of the body politic since our early history, the consequences of our words and images are today more far reaching and fall on the rational and irrational, the sane and insane alike. What has changed is technology – cable television, the internet, and a 24-hour news cycle. “What’s different about this moment,” according to Matt Bai of the New York Times, “is the emergence of a political culture — on blogs and Twitter and cable television — that so loudly and readily reinforces the dark visions of political extremists, often for profit or political gain.” Whatever Loughner’s politics, “it’s hard not to think he was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.”
I do not believe that the tragedy in Tucson was the direct result of irresponsible political rhetoric. But if the horrific events of last Saturday shock the American conscience into more thoughtful and respectful discourse, if it forces our schools and communities to better address mental health issues, if it awakens us to the need for more restrictive gun laws, then it will have left a positive legacy on our nation’s history. Solving our economic, political, and military problems is hard work that requires careful deliberation, compromise and discipline. It cannot be achieved with angry denunciations and the demonization of our opponents. Nor does it serve our nation to lay blame on our opponents for the acts of a disturbed man beyond our control. Anger is easy; empathy, understanding, and compassion requires personal strength and discipline. We must learn, as Jim Wallis writes in Sojourners, “to relate to others with whom we disagree on important issues without calling them evil” and understand that our words “fall upon the balanced and unbalanced, stable and unstable, the well-grounded and the unhinged, alike.”