Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Flashpoint: Arizona

By any measure, the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was barbaric. This is the United States. We do not kill politicians. Nor do we kill citizens gathered to participate in the ordinary workings of democracy.

As people across the world contemplate what Giffords' shooting means, the task has been made that much harder by the fact that the shooter, Jared Loughner, has been pretty mum about his motives.

That hasn't stopped at least three major viewpoints from coming to the fore:

It has been suggested - mostly by members of the mainstream media - that the vitriol being spouted constantly by right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck has fomented an atmosphere of petulant animosity in America. Sooner or later, this theory goes, some nut job was bound to crack under the perilous weight of the hawkish propaganda being flung from the far right corners of our society.

Others blame guns, claiming that if we had even stricter gun laws or even banned guns, that shootings like this wouldn't take place. And apparently, Arizona has what some people consider to be extraordinarily loose gun laws, which only make a scenario like we saw Saturday all that more likely.

Still others have wondered out loud if the extreme policy decisions by President Barak Obama, such as his nationalized healthcare legislation, and inability to jump-start job growth have shaken some fundamental moorings of our economy. Being unemployed, Loughner perhaps blamed politicians for his predicament.

Reality Checks

First, let's start with the fact that Loughner is a registered Independent, and the politician he tried to kill is a Democrat. People who register as "Independent" generally aren't passionate enough to kill a politician, are they? Although he may have been seething with anger over some position Giffords has taken on issues, does Loughner's voter history fit the M.O. of a combustable anarchist? Even though it has been rumored he flirted with the idea of becoming a skinhead, and Giffords is Jewish, I can't see a follow-through to murder there, either.

Second, as I've said before, the old mantra is true: guns don't kill people, people kill people. For Loughner to be as crazed as he obviously was to want Giffords and her supporters dead, might he have used some other weapon if he'd been denied access to a gun? Crashed a car into the crowd, for example? Besides, as has been widely pointed out: gun ownership is technically illegal in Mexico... but Mexicans get shot to death all the time.

Third, perhaps the Democratic Party does indeed rely on the government too much for economic stimuli and job creation. Republicans claim, and I believe rightfully so, that free markets respond best to capitalistic innovation, not government machinations. Still, for anybody to hold one government bureaucrat - including a president, but especially a comparatively lowly representative - responsible for what ails them does betray a woefully immature grasp on reality.

When evaluated in light of these considerations, then, isn't the most likely scenario remaining that Loughner is mentally imbalanced? He was even kicked out of his community college and told he needed a doctor's confirmation of his sanity before he would be allowed to return. Enrollment-driven community colleges don't ordinarly risk alienating their students unless they have pretty good reason.

Personally, I've quietly wondered if he didn't have a secret crush on Giffords, who is married to an astronaut, of all people. Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think there's much an unemployed, uneducated college dropout can offer a congresswoman that she can't get from a flyboy astronaut. One that, at least from his media interviews, sounds like he truly valued their marriage relationship, long-distance though it has been.

Action Points

So, for anybody who cares what I think about how America should react to Saturday's tragedy, here's what I consider to be a rational, logical methodology for moving forward. At least until we learn what really prompted Loughner to do what he did.

  1. It wouldn't hurt if talk radio's conservative pundits proactively considered how the things they say can be interpreted by a wide-ranging audience. If they can't say what they want to say without toning down inciteful rhetoric and goofy exaggerations, then their opinions probably aren't worth what their sponsors are paying them. Just yesterday, Limbaugh had the gall to claim that "...Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country... He knows that...the Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he's just a victim..."

    How can anybody who claims to be sane listen to such mean-spirited, grossly-distorted, and divisive drivel?

  2. Since Loughner's was almost certainly an isolated act, there should be no need to beef up security details for other members of Congress. In addition to costing far more financially than our country can afford at this time, the symbolic cost of having elected officials virtually walled-off from their constituents would send an entirely negative message to all of the other crack-pots eyeing America for chinks in our armor.

  3. Mental illness exists as a real, pervasive, and yet furtive problem in the United States. Granted, considering the reportedly extensive planning Loughner conducted, chances seem slim that his lawyers will be able to prove his actions weren't premeditated - essential to getting an insanity plea. Even though he probably won't be legally certified as insane, however, Loughner almost certainly has severe mental issues.

    Unfortunately, I don't have a clue as to how we bring help to bear on cases like his before it's too late. His community college probably felt they had gone far enough by expelling him. Indeed, even the mentally ill have rights. Perhaps if socially we continue to de-stigmatize mental disorders, more meaningful dialog can take place, instead of spiteful rhetoric from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

  4. America's cultural infatuation with violence needs to be curtailed. Aggression has been enshrined in our media as the most attractive method for resolving conflict. Particularly now with the proliferation of video games where death is just a click of a mouse, the sanctity of life and permanence of death have been woefully marginalized.

    The reason so much violence takes place in the United States as opposed to other developed countries isn't the fact that guns are popular here, but because we glorify antisocial behavior so much. Loughner didn't need to be denied access to guns; he needed to have been brought up in a culture which taught him proper ways for dealing with anger, frustration, and opposing viewpoints.

In the meantime, our individual and collective responses to the tragedy in Tucson should be measured and respectful - those things Loughner's actions weren't. Some politicians may have itchy fingers, wanting to reflexively make new laws or draw conclusions which could end up being spurious.

Just this afternoon, the Arizona legislature unanimously drafted a law pertaining to the Westboro "Baptist Church"* protest announced for one of the victim's funerals this week. While I understand the emotional component behind such legislation, I also cringe at the free speech ramifications such legislation has.

Because it's not clear what an overreaction to Saturday's killings might look like, isn't that enough of a reason for caution?
*It's neither "Baptist," nor is it a "church."

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