I will readily confess that I understand very little about what happened in Tucson on the morning of January 8. The little I do know can be summed up in these two sentences: A madman killed six people and wounded thirteen others in a wanton shooting spree during a “meet and greet” that was being hosted by a member of Congress. He seemed to enjoy the experience, both as he was doing the shooting and later when he had been arrested and posed for a mug shot (the gruesome photo that once seen is implanted in our collective consciousness).
Beyond those facts and observations, I am far from certain about what caused the kind of deranged thinking that led this young guy (only 22 years old) to act in such an inhuman way while displaying neither desperation nor, apparently, overt anger in carrying out the act. Is it possible that he really didn’t care that he was killing people whom he’d never met?
Of course, it is not only possible, but, from all the evidence now available, probable.
But there have to be lessons from this tragedy, if not answers for why it happened. I start by considering the options.
For openers, I accept only three possible causes for the person that Jared Loughner became. Simply stated, they are genetics, environment or a combination of the two. And since one’s genetics are completely beyond anyone’s control, let me focus on environmental factors.
In the modern society from which Jared Loughner emerged, I identify four factors that could have played a role in the tragedy he created. I will list and briefly discuss them in terms of their degree of importance, beginning with what appears to me to be the least significant.
Political rhetoric – Much has been said and written on this possible cause since the deadly assault—too much, in my opinion. It is true that the level of vitriol and hyperbole that has attended much political speech in the last ten years (and even more significantly in the last two years) has been extreme and uncivil. And it is also true that images of cross-hairs on Congressional districts, however intended, are not an appropriate way to indicate political viewpoints.
But it is not likely that Mr. Loughner was impressed by (assuming he was even aware of) that imagery, and it is even less likely that he would have been motivated to attack not only a member of Congress whose views he might have objected to but also those wholly innocent folks who had gathered to speak with her.
We should be more civil, and the Rush Limbaughs and Keith Olbermanns of the media airwaves should promote that civility far more than they do, but political rhetoric did not cause the Tucson tragedy, nor did political discourse contribute to it in any consequential way.
Mental illness – For any number of reasons, people develop mental illnesses. Some of these are of a variety that put those people and others at risk. That fact seems inevitable in the human condition. From the earliest recorded history to the present, societies have included madmen who have mutilated and destroyed their own bodies and those of others.
But in a civilized society, such as the United States purports to be, the mentally ill must be identified, treated, and often even removed from the mainstream of society. For thirty years, U.S. policies toward the mentally ill have been neglectful at best and dangerously cruel at worst. The genesis of this attitude was the decision by the Reagan administration to stop federal funding for mental illness facilities. By turning over care for the mentally ill to the states, President Reagan greatly increased the likelihood that madmen like Jared Loughner would remain undetected and unsupervised.
But this failing by the country (and it should be noted that no president, Republican or Democrat, has seen fit to reverse the Reagan policy), was not the principal cause of the Tucson tragedy. Mr. Loughner could well have gone undetected even in a fully funded federal program on mental health.
Violent culture – This one brings us closer to a potential causative factor. America’s new millennial culture is shockingly akin to the early Roman Empire that featured gladiators fighting to the death. The movie industry leads the way with feature film after feature film depicting gratuitous violence that reflects a lack of regard for human life. Sex is out; violence is in; and the more graphic the violence, the more likely the film will score big at the box office. But that aspect of the culture is just the tip of the iceberg.
Of far greater concern are the graphic video games that encourage those playing them (often the nation’s youngest and most impressionable) to kill enemy warriors with the same level of delight that Jared Loughner is said to have displayed as he emptied his clip of bullets in the Tucson tragedy.
Gun control – But of course, all the violent depictions in film and video games would have little real impact were it not for the easy access to guns that current law permits. Only in a wholly insane society would a right to bear arms be interpreted to include the right of a deranged psychotic to purchase a weapon that could fire 31 lethal rounds in a matter of seconds, but that is the society that currently exists in the United States of America.
Jared Loughner legally purchased the gun that he used and the ammunition that he shot. He did not violate any federal or state laws in purchasing the Glock 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol or the magazine clip that contained 30 rounds. He only broke the law when he fired the loaded weapon at Congresswoman Giffords and the crowd gathered around her.
No law will be passed to change the circumstances that currently exist in Arizona and many other states because a lobbying organization with a membership of 4.5 million Americans will not allow it. In a nation of over 300 million people, this is truly tyranny by a minority.
Jared Loughner may or may not be criminally insane, but his country surely is.