Politics

Not Only Did the Climate of Hate Influence Jared Loughner, Denying That Truism Is "Actively dangerous"

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This cover makes me uncomfortable

So says Chapman University Associate English Professor Tom Zoellner, author of a new book called A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America. In an excerpt reprinted column published by Zócalo Public Square under the misleading headling "Who Shot Gabrielle Giffords?&tag=reasonmagazinea-20" (I say "misleading" because we learn exactly nothing about the not-irrelevant man who pulled the trigger), Zollner argues that after all, it was you and me…but mostly you:

The months leading up to the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords were unusually paranoid ones. I saw the tension up close, because Tucson is my hometown, and I worked on my friend Gabrielle's campaign as a speechwriter, watching as her face was all over television and outdoor ads portraying her as the embodiment of a government that was wrecking the local economy. There was a feeling in Tucson that I did not recognize.

Much has been made of the website put up by Sarah Palin's political action committee (with target markets over the districts of vulnerable Democrats, including Gabrielle's) and the newspaper ad for her opponent calling on his supporters to help him shoot an M-16 at a fundraiser. I think these gestures are unimportant in themselves—in dubious taste but certainly not the motivating reason why the paranoid schizophrenic Jared Loughner brought a gun to the Safeway with the intention of assassinating Gabrielle.

What they were, though, were symptoms of the larger causes of Tucson's unease: a fragile economy, a fear of illegal immigrants, a toxic political culture that favors passion over reason, and the disconnected neighborhoods of newcomers where loneliness festers and lack of concern for one's neighbor becomes a habit. This is the environment in which the punitive and ridiculous law SB 1070 was passed, requiring local police to demand the immigration papers of anybody they stop who appears to fit a suspicious profile—such as a Latino who happened to dress down that day.

Loughner was suffering from a grave mental illness, but he was not living in a world made entirely of his own delusions. He could still hear and see what surrounded him, and those surroundings helped him formulate a plot against a specific target: Gabrielle Giffords, who, besides the president, may have been the most reviled public face in Tucson that year. The slime was directed at her personally, but it was only a convenient channel for the fear that the American dream was lost and that a crisis was at hand. […]

Dismissing Loughner as a random "black swan," free of all antecedents or influences, is worse than facile or lazy. It is actively dangerous, for it allows us to ignore the contributing human context, which is something we can change.

One of many problems with this line of argument is that you can, at any given point, always find larger indices of "unease," toxic political debates, and "disconnected neighborhoods of newcomers." I am trying to imagine any period of American history where those descriptions would not apply. So do we pin partial blame for the L.A. arsonist on our maddening immigration process? Do we blame every crime at or near an Occupy encampment on overheated anti-capitalist rhetoric? No, we (and here I mean most of us, as opposed to commentators who have become debased by partisanship) do not.

Reason's April 2011 issue was largely devoted to this topic; for those interested, start with "The Loughner Panic," continue to my column "Against 'Incitement,'" and wash it all down with Jesse Walker's classic essay on "The Paranoid Center."