Shortly before the new year kicked off, I read an article by Marian Salzman on CNN.com that predicted that 2011 “could be a year of anger.” At the time, I found myself fulfilling that prediction, but not for the reason the author intended. Instead of being angry about the economy, political landscape or social issues, I was mad at Salzman for effectively writing a self fulfilling prophecy. I put off crafting a response to that notion, admitting that my own anger would probably find its way into the post.

I was standing outside the Tennessee House Chamber yesterday afternoon, patiently waiting for a much-delayed event to finally get started. Make no mistake, there was a fair amount of anger to go around in that crowd to — the party had been drubbed in statewide elections, and now the time had come to elect the next chair. That’s when the sparse details started to come about a shooting in Arizona.

It has now been over 24 hours since a lone gunman opened fire outside of a Tucson supermarket where a political event for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was being held. Twenty were injured, and three people are dead including a federal judge and a nine year-old girl. The congresswoman is said to be in critical condition after being shot in the head at point-blank range. The suspect is a 22 year-old male named Jared Lee Loughner.

Details are still emerging about Loughner, but the profile is beginning to indicate that he had a mental illness that had lead to his suspension from a local community college and denied entry into the US Army. Everything else beyond that as to his motives remains speculative at this point. The cable networks have spun out of control with hypothesis and conjecture as to what led up to the events of Saturday morning in Tucson, Arizona.

Was he spurred on by dissatisfaction with the government? Was it the health care debate? Was it a truly random act of violence to gain notoriety? What was going on inside Loughner’s head? Who is ultimately responsible for this tragedy? At least that last question is easy to answer: one man, with a gun.

The political rhetoric

Much has been said about a map produced by the SarahPAC group that depicted targets on a map representing the supporters of the healthcare bill. One was reserved for Rep. Giffords on her home state of Arizona. The campaign trail featured old west rhetoric like “reload” and “take ‘em down” to describe efforts to elect more conservative candidates in these places. Heated campaign trail talk can often have unintended consequences when heard by a downtrodden society looking for fast solutions to today’s most pressing struggles in these tough economic times. Were these words and publications the catalyst to Saturday’s violence? The clearest answer to who killed three and wounded twenty is still:

One man, with a gun.

I have to believe that none of the organizers and leadership of the Tea Party movement, SarahPAC or House and Senate conservatives ever wished physical harm or intimidation against Rep. Giffords or anyone else. These are ideological arguments, not calls for bloodshed. If this individual was not listening to more mainstream talking points, he would have likely found his motive through some other means (anarchist writings, faux biblical justification, etc.)

The media

If there is one thing that gives a megaphone to the most fringe of any debate it would be our 24 hour cable news networks and newspapers looking to capitalize on controversy. Websites such as MediaMatters.org often highlight where this “mountain out of mole hills” approach leads to eschewing important details of proposed legislation in favor of highlighting what is perceived to be the most contentious points. Elected officials are then put in a position where they must appear strong in front of constituents rather than working with their colleagues to reach a common ground. We heard words like “holding legislation hostage” and “like negotiating with terrorists” rather than common-sense compromise. Did a media platform that harnesses manufactured anger and outrage lead to this senseless act of violence? The clearest answer to who killed three and wounded twenty is still:

One man, with a gun.

CNN often proclaims that politicians are “in trouble” for supporting controversial legislation or if their poll numbers dip by more than a few percentage points. But most people can see this for what it is — political theatre that only represents a snapshot (no matter how distorted) of the present and cannot dependably predict the future. No matter what network the assailant watched regularly, at no point did they ever instruct their viewers to get a gun, go to a political rally and try to kill an elected official.

Gun rights and gun control activists

This case lends itself to set center stage for a debate on gun laws and the Second Amendment. How did someone with an alleged mental illness obtain a semi-automatic firearm? Did he purchase the gun, or was it given to him or stolen? If he did purchase it, how is it that a community college that suspended him until a note from a doctor would certify that he was not a danger to himself or others not show up on a background check? Is there an earned right to patient privacy, and should mental condition be considered when processing a transaction to purchase a firearm? So is lackadaisical gun regulation to blame? The clearest answer to who killed three and wounded twenty is still:

One man, with a gun.

It does not matter how strong our gun control laws are. If an individual wants to cause harm and is in a mental state to go through with it, no amount of laws, regulations or barriers would have stopped him. Take away is gun, he uses explosives. Prevent that, he uses a knife. Nothing short of catching the warning signs and treatment can stop a mentally unstable individual from causing harm to themselves or others.

A troubled personal life

Past tragedies usually lead us to believe that anyone whoever commits a heinous act like a school shooting or walks into their workplace brandishing a weapon lead a troubled home life. Their parents had a history of physical abuse. Sexual abuse by a neighbor or family friend. Distraught over a recent loss. These things typically lead to the diagnosis of a mental illness caused by the trauma they bring. Or they go undiagnosed. Could a family member or close confidant be the one that put the suspect over the edge? The clearest answer to who killed three and wounded twenty is still:

One man, with a gun.

Failing to diagnose and treat a mental illness is a tragic mistake, but it often requires the efforts of many to recognize the warning signs and seek out help. There were no doubt warning signs that others should have noticed and spoke up. But the ultimate fault is still not with these people. Our society since even the earliest of times has never found an appropriate way to care for those going through mental pain and suffering. They used to be institutionalized until that fell out of vogue for state and federal funding. Now it is left in the hands of non-profit groups that are often overwhelmed by new cases and funded through private donations or small state allotments. Whether the suspect ever sought treatment is still unclear.

Insufficient security detail

Reports are coming out that a similar incident occurred at a campaign event for Rep. Giffords in 2009, when a protester was found to have a gun in his possession. Threats against judges and elected officials are on the rise. Was this a failure to plan for an outdoor event with no security checkpoints? Should U.S. Representatives and Senators be provided with a security detail when traveling to their home districts? Would that have prevented this senseless act of violence? The clearest answer to who killed three and wounded twenty is still:

One man, with a gun.

It takes a brave person to leave their own home when they know that threats have been made against them. No one is ever completely safe, whether they are walking around a rough neighborhood at night or an affluent neighborhood in broad daylight. Even those with a tight security detail can be harmed, and traveling this way limits the ability for the elected official to interact with their constituents. Nobody is elected to serve in a protective bubble — they still need to be able to talk and listen to their constituents without barriers between them. Particularly in the coming weeks, we may see some that decide to give up public service in fear for their own safety. But many more will continue to do the job they were elected to do.

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This incident will be talked about for several months and will likely have an immediate impact on the tenor of political discourse as well as open new debates on these and other issues. It would be cynical to say that it takes a tragedy for important issues to become important enough to talk about. Still, the legislative agenda and public debate will be shaped by what happened in Tucson.


2 Responses

  1. Brian Dailey says:

    Fantastic post, Stephen.

  2. baxterblogs says:

    Great post, Stephen. Excellent points and well written.
    Thanks!