The Loughner Panic

Breaking down the media/political breakdown over the Tucson massacre


Two hours after a deranged college dropout named Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a congresswoman's meet-and-greet outside a Tucson supermarket, killing six and wounding 13 others, the influential progressive blogger Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas fouled Twitter with this grotesque message: "Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin." Several hours later The New York Times reported in its front-page coverage that the massacre "set off what is likely to be a wrenching debate over anger and violence in American politics." We soon got a rather different "wrenching debate," over the media's rush to blame the violence on political rhetoric, especially the right-of-center variety.

This wasn't the first time during Barack Obama's presidency that Republicans, Tea Partiers, and libertarians were blamed for the murderous rampage of a gunman who was none of the above. Nor is it likely to be the last. But the post-massacre recriminations illuminated the sickness of our political discourse, including the instinct to grasp at "solutions" requiring that we surrender still more of our freedoms to a sporadically competent state.

The bewildering and disheartening days following the attack were dominated by connect-the-dots "paranoia of the center" (in Managing Editor Jesse Walker's memorable coinage). But a silver lining emerged even before President Obama's stirring, unifying eulogy at the University of Arizona: The American people, by a solid majority, never bought into the narrative that political speech produced this heinous act. Nor did most Americans blame loose gun laws or the other scapegoats invoked in the days after the murders. And as of press time, few of the hurried, post-massacre legislative proposals designed to prevent the next tragedy appeared to be gathering momentum. 

In this package, reason examines the most fanciful theories about Loughner's rampage, highlights some of the more extreme post-shooting policy ideas (including involuntary commitment of the mentally disturbed), and analyzes the ways in which Loughner's profile resembles those of political assassins throughout history. We also explore the more direct—and more deadly—link between political rhetoric and violence when it comes to the war on drugs and the militarization of police. To kick things off, we take a look at perhaps the only salutary side effect of this hideous moment: In their rush to judgment and eagerness to politicize, Democrats, Republicans, and the mainstream media hastened the process of their own undoing.

The Politicization of Everything: Why Americans increasingly hate Democrats and Republicans. By Nick Gillespie.

The Deadliest Rhetoric: Critics who link anti-government speech to violence ignore the violence committed by a government "at war." By Radley Balko.

Unpacking Jared Lee Loughner: If you're the Southern Poverty Law Center, the media will treat your guesses like gold. By Jesse Walker.

Just Your Typical Would-Be Assassin: Jared Loughner fits the profile of a killer—but not in the way you might think. By Ronald Bailey.

From Reefer Madness to the Hays Code: Pundits go mad looking for Tucson massacre scapegoats. By Katherine Mangu-Ward.

Looking for Loughners: Would laxer commitment rules make us safer? By Jacob Sullum.

Gun Control Couldn't Have Stopped It: The Tucson massacre should not lead to new restrictions on firearms. By Brian Doherty.