By now, anyone who has read the MySpace ramblings of Jared Lee Loughner, arrested for the shooting of Democratic representative Gabrielle Giffords, has probably come to the conclusion that he is a profoundly troubled and confused young man. His odd and self-inflating beliefs, his increasingly odd behavior, and his disconnected reasoning suggest a diagnosis of schizophrenia. His motives for the attack are probably quite literally crazy. Still, one can't help but wonder what part inflammatory political rhetoric - talks of targets, reloading, Second Amendment solutions, crosshairs, the firing line, or an ad to "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office" by shooting an M16 rifle with her opponent - played in influencing this young man to act out his confusion by shooting a public figure.
In 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, I entered high school. I remember my ninth grade English teacher saying that it was only liberals who got shot, because liberals didn't seek to use violence. But what do we really know about shooters' motives? Four years later George Wallace was shot by a mentally troubled young man who wanted fame. Nine years after that, another attention-seeking mentally ill young man shot President Reagan. It turns out that conservatives can get shot, too.
I was going to call this entry "Assassination Schadenfreude." A political shooting is a tragedy; it undercuts our beliefs about ourselves as a civil society. The deaths and woundings of so many bystanders make this particular shooting even more sickening. But tell the truth: as long as you don't personally know the victims, don't the joys of finger-pointing go a long way to making you feel better about the event? When they shoot at us, it just goes to show that they're the bad guys.
Tea Party members are working as fast as they can to show that Loughlin was not a member or associate of theirs. Democrats are biting their tongues, trying not to jump right out and blame this mayhem on the inflamed rhetoric of the right - or at least to spend a decent amount of time talking about and praying for the victims first. Meanwhile, the people who use the comments section of online news articles to rant about their beliefs are plunging right in to blame one another for the shooting.
No political movement, and no organization of thousands and millions of people can guard against the twisted reactions of all its followers. There's really no place for glee at the fact that it wasn't anyone from our side who did this bad thing. Let's all instead try to react to this shooting with a sense of humility, self-examination, and re-dedication to the ideal of civic discourse marked by civil disagreement, accepting our opponents as people who deserve life, liberty, freedom from fear and freedom of opinion as much as we do.