OF the many truths in President Obama’s powerful Tucson speech, none was more indisputable than his statement that no one can know what is in a killer’s mind. So why have we spent so much time debating exactly that?
The answer is classic American denial. It was easier to endlessly parse Jared Lee Loughner’s lunatic library — did he favor “The Communist Manifesto” or Ayn Rand? — than confront the larger and harsher snapshot of our current landscape that emerged after his massacre. A week on, that denial is becoming even more entrenched. As soon as the president left the podium Wednesday night, we started shifting into our familiar spin-dry post-tragedy cycle of the modern era — speedy “closure,” followed by a return to business as usual, followed by national amnesia.
If we learn nothing from this tragedy, we are back where we started. And where we started was with two years of accelerating political violence — actual violence, not to be confused with violent language — that struck fear into many, not the least of whom was Gabrielle Giffords.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s stipulate that Loughner was a “lone nutjob” who had never listened to Glenn Beck or been a card-carrying member of either the Tea or Communist parties. Let’s also face another tragedy: The only two civic reforms that might have actually stopped him — tighter gun control and an effective mental health safety net — won’t materialize even now.
Gun and ammunition sales spiked last week, especially for the specific varieties given the Loughner imprimatur. No editorial — or bloodbath — will move Congress to enact serious gun control (which Giffords herself never advocated and Obama has rarely pushed since 2008). Enhanced mental health coverage is also a nonstarter when the highest G.O.P. priority is to repeal the federal expansion of health care. In Arizona, cutbacks are already so severe that terminally ill patients are being denied life-saving organ transplants.
The other inescapable reality was articulated by Sarah Palin, believe it or not, in her “blood libel” video. Speaking of acrimonious partisan debate, she asked, “When was it less heated — back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?” She’s right. Calls for civility will have no more lasting impact on the “tone” of American discourse now than they did after the J.F.K. assassination or Oklahoma City. Especially not in an era when technology allows all 300 million Americans a cost-free megaphone for unmediated rants.
Did Loughner see Palin’s own most notorious contribution to the rancorous tone — her March 2010 Web graphic targeting Congressional districts? We have no idea — nor does it matter. But Giffords did. Her reaction to it — captured in an interview she did back then with Chuck Todd of MSNBC — was the most recycled, if least understood, video of last week.
The week of that interview began with the House passing the health care bill on Sunday. Within hours, on Monday morning, vandals smashed the front door of Giffords’s office in Tucson. The Palin “target” map (and the accompanying Twitter dictum to “RELOAD”) went up on Tuesday, just one day after that vandalism — timing that was at best tone-deaf and at worst nastily provocative. Not just Giffords, but at least three other of the 20 members of Congress on the Palin map were also hit with vandalism or death threats.
In her MSNBC interview that Wednesday, Giffords said that Palin had put the “crosshairs of a gun sight over our district,” adding that “when people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.” Chuck Todd then asked Giffords if “in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years.” She responded that colleagues who had been in the House “20, 30 years” had never seen vitriol this bad. But Todd moved on, and so did the Beltway. What’s the big deal about a little broken glass? Few wanted to see what Giffords saw — that the vandalism and death threats were the latest consequences of a tide of ugly insurrectionism that had been rising since the final weeks of the 2008 campaign and that had threatened to turn violent from the start.
Giffords’s first brush with that reality had occurred some seven months before her office was vandalized — in the red-hot health care fever of August 2009. She had held another “Congress on Your Corner” meeting, at a Safeway in the town of Douglas. There the crowd’s rage and the dropping of a gun by one attendee prompted aides worried about her safety to summon the police. The Tucson Tea Party co-founder, Trent Humphries, told The Arizona Daily Star afterward that this was a lie, that “nobody was threatening Gabby.” After Loughner’s massacre, Humphries was still faulting her — this time for holding “an event in full view of the public with no security whatsoever.”
Others on the right spent last week loudly protesting the politicization of tragedy. What was most revealing was how often they tried to rewrite the history of previous incidents having nothing to do with Loughner. A Palin aide claimed that her target map was only invoking a “surveyor’s symbol,” not gun sights. A Tucson Tea Party leader announced that the attack on Giffords’s office (never solved by the police) was probably caused by skateboarding kids. Mike Pence, a potential G.O.P. “values” candidate for president, told the C-Span audience that those bearing firearms at Congressional town hall meetings and Obama events (including one in Arizona that August of 2009) were no different from anti-Bush demonstrators “waving placards.”
For macabre absurdity, it would seem hard to top Newt Gingrich, who wailed about leftists linking Loughner to the right as if he had not famously blamed a psychotic double-murder of 1994, Susan Smith’s drowning of her two sons in South Carolina, on “Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” But Representative Trent Franks, Republican of Arizona, did top Newt. On “Meet the Press” last Sunday he implored us to “treat each other as fellow children of God” without acknowledging (or being questioned about) his 2009 diatribebranding Obama as “an enemy of humanity.”
As the president said in Tucson, we lack not just civil discourse, but honest discourse. Much of last week’s televised bloviation was dishonest, dedicated to the pious, feel-good sentiment that both sides are equally culpable for the rage of the past two years. To construct this false equivalency, every left-leaning Web site and Democratic politician’s record was dutifully culled for incendiary invective. If that’s the standard, then both sides are equally at fault — rhetoric can indeed be as violent on the left as on the right.
But that sidesteps the issue. This isn’t about angry blog posts or verbal fisticuffs. Since Obama’s ascension, we’ve seen repeated incidents of political violence. Just a short list would include the 2009 killing of three Pittsburgh police officers by a neo-Nazi Obama-hater; last year’s murder-suicide kamikaze attack on an I.R.S. office in Austin, Tex.; and the California police shootout with an assailant plotting to attack an obscure liberal foundation obsessively vilified by Beck.
Obama said, correctly, on Wednesday that “a simple lack of civility” didn’t cause the Tucson tragedy. It didn’t cause these other incidents either. What did inform the earlier violence — including the vandalism at Giffords’s office — was an antigovernment radicalism as rabid on the right now as it was on the left in the late 1960s. That Loughner was likely insane, with no coherent ideological agenda, does not mean that a climate of antigovernment hysteria has no effect on him or other crazed loners out there. Nor does Loughner’s insanity mitigate the surge in unhinged political zealots acting out over the last two years. That’s why so many — on both the finger-pointing left and the hyper-defensive right — automatically assumed he must be another of them.
Have politicians stoked the pre-Loughner violence by advocating that citizens pursue“Second Amendment remedies” or be “armed and dangerous”? We don’t know. What’s more disturbing is what Republican and conservative leaders have not said. Their continuing silence during two years of simmering violence has been chilling.
A few unexpected voices have expressed alarm. After an antigovernment gunman struckat Washington’s Holocaust museum in June 2009, Shepard Smith of Fox News noted the rising vitriol in his e-mail traffic and warned on air that more “amped up” Americans could be “getting the gun out.” The former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum took on the “reckless right” that August, citing the incident at the Giffords Safeway event. But when a Department of Homeland Security report warned of far-right extremism and attacks by “lone wolves” that same summer, Gingrich called it a smear and John Boehnerdemanded an apology.
Last week a conservative presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty, timidly said it wouldn’t be his “style” to use Palin’s target map, but was savaged so viciously by his own camp that he immediately retreated. A senior Republican senator told Politico that he saw the Tucson bloodbath as a “cautionary tale” for his party, yet refused to be named.
What are they and their peers so afraid of? No doubt that someone might reload — the same fears that prompted Gabrielle Giffords to speak up, calmly but firmly, last March. Unless and until they can match her courage and speak out too, it’s hard to see what will change.