A nut job with a gun shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people on Saturday, killing six and leaving Giffords, a moderate Democrat who represents a Republican-leaning Arizona district, clinging to life after brain surgery.
Unless eyewitnesses overpowered the wrong guy when he paused to reload his weapon, we know exactly what happened to Giffords and those other innocent victims. A 22-year-old misfit named Jared Loughner, known by his acquaintances to have tendencies toward raving statements and aggressive behavior, used a rapid-firing handgun to squeeze out two dozen shots or more before anyone in the crowd surrounding him had a chance to react.
The Tea Party movement did not shoot those people, or cause the shooting. Neither did Fox News, nor Sarah Palin, nor the loudmouthed talking heads on AM radio. It is emotionally comforting, but self-deceptive, to blame the weekend mayhem in Arizona on the overheated, angry rhetoric of modern American politics. The alternative, too terrifying for many of us to accept, is that this is just another random example of a not-uniquely-American phenomenon: As long as there are crazy people and there are weapons, the former will sometimes use the latter to commit senseless acts of violence.
Blaming politics for Saturday’s shootings is like blaming television and computer-game violence for the many awful school shootings we have seen, including Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. It is like blaming rock and roll music for Mark David Chapman’s decision to murder John Lennon. It is like blaming Hollywood for John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan (in a delusional attempt to win the affection of actress Jodie Foster), or television for the 1989 murder of young sitcom star Rebecca Schaefer by Robert John Bardo, an obsessed stalker. Emotionally closer to the politics-tinged Arizona case, American policy was not to blame for the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber’s multi-year string of destruction, or the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The nut job with a gun is an old story, predating all of these factors. President James Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, an unsuccessful loner who felt he was personally responsible for Garfield’s election. That was in 1881.
The circumstances of each situation varied. Any one of these assaults might have been averted if something in the would-be killer’s environment had been different. If things had been different, though, other unfortunate random events could just as easily have occurred. The influence of a mentally unstable person’s surroundings on their actions is difficult to predict and impossible to control, short of institutionalizing the individual.
We can’t make seriously disturbed people less disturbed by the way we behave. But even so, there are two useful things we can do in response to a tragedy like that in Arizona. First, we can try to contain the damage that occurs when an unstable person erupts into violence. And second, we can tone down and civilize our discourse; not because it will prevent violent people from acting violently, but because we will have a much better society if people who are not seriously disturbed stop giving those around them reasons to fear that they are, or that others around them will be triggered by gratuitously angry or hateful speech.
Certainly, a little bit of celebrity (and a junior congresswoman from the minority party has only a little bit of celebrity) can make someone the target of an unstable person’s obsessions, and can heighten risk to personal safety. When we combine that fact with the easy availability of high-powered, rapid-firing weapons, the danger is magnified: for the recognizable individual, for bystanders and other third parties, or for crowds at places such as schools. Although this kind of random violence is not unique to our country, our relative openness toward weapons makes it more likely to happen here than elsewhere, and often more deadly when it does.
We are never going to have the kind of strict controls on guns in this country that some of us would like to see. The Supreme Court has spoken, and all that really remains to hash out is the degree of restriction government can place on the ability of civilians to obtain repeat-firing, large-magazine, powerful weapons that are designed to shoot a lot of people in a hurry. In this weekend’s case, as in many others, there probably would have been no legal way to stop a citizen with an apparently clean criminal record from buying a gun, even after he displayed ample signs of instability and alienation. Ironically, Giffords likely would have opposed any significant moves to restrict her assailant’s ability to get hold of a weapon. (If she recovers, it will be interesting to see if she has the sort of epiphany that James Brady, who was Reagan’s press secretary, experienced after he survived a bullet to the brain.)
We absolutely should tone down our discussions, on politics and other topics, to show respect for other points of view. People who disagree with us on controversial issues are generally not trying to hurt anyone. They are not our enemies. We ought to have the humility to grant that they may even be right, and that if they are not, they still are entitled to opinions that differ from ours.
Just writing this daily commentary brings out a lot of gratuitous nastiness, nearly all of which is screened from this page because my colleague Amy Laburda takes on the burden of being the gatekeeper. So you did not read the rant from a man in South Africa who promised to withhold his business from my financial planning firm because I used the plural “piranhas” rather than “piranha” (both, incidentally, are acceptable plural forms in English) in a post last week. And you did not see the comments of the man who described the homeless as “parasites” and wrote of health care: “If you haven’t done a damn thing for anyone, you don’t deserve anything.”
We owe it to one another to be polite, if not kind, not because it is a way to make disturbed people behave normally – it generally won’t – but because there is no reason for normal people to behave toward one another as though we are disturbed. We all can do without the added stress.
We also can try, though better security, more vigilant mental health screening, and perhaps other acceptable changes in the gun laws, to cut down the number and severity of tragedies like Saturday’s. It is certainly a worthwhile effort to make. But as long as we have guns and nut jobs, the nut-job-with-a-gun story is not going to go away.