The deranged expression on the face of Jared Lee Loughner in the mug shot released by the police — taken within hours after he allegedly killed six innocent people and wounded 14 more, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — suggests that we may never fully understand whatever illness afflicts him. The law requires us to assess his mental state and motivations, but we might do better to analyze our own craziness.
That doesn't mean trying to determine whether events like the Tucson massacre result from violent political rhetoric — a debate that swiftly and predictably devolved into a self-pity party for Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and all of their imitators.
Both instantly demonstrated what a lawyer friend calls "consciousness of guilt": Palin with a preposterous claim that the crosshairs on her SarahPAC map marking the Giffords district was a surveyor's symbol, and Limbaugh with his even more ludicrous assertion that the Democratic Party is supporting the assassin. Their overwrought reaction, narcissistic and nonsensical, proves that those who profit from bullying blather cannot be expected to suddenly turn civil, even in the aftermath of tragedy.
Besides, there was plenty of evidence that the barrage of hate speech is potentially deadly long before Tucson. Last summer, a West Coast man loaded up his car with weapons and explosives, setting out to kill executives of the liberal Tides Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union because, according to his mother, he had listened to Glenn Beck excoriating those groups as "socialists" destroying America. Not long before that episode, yet another lone gunman shot three Pittsburgh police officers because he had heard on Fox News that his guns were going to be confiscated by the government.
Were the right-wing babblers on radio and television directly responsible for these incidents? No. They are merely responsible for fostering a toxic environment that encourages crazy people to act on their most dangerous impulses. Politicians who talk about their "armed and dangerous supporters" and turning to "Second Amendment solutions" are equally culpable — and equally unlikely to admit any responsibility or change their obnoxious tone.
But if there is little hope of restraint and civility, then perhaps we ought to reconsider how to prevent sick people from obtaining the means to act on their violent impulses. We easily identify individuals such as Loughner as insane, but how sane are the rest of us if we continue to enable their crimes?
In Arizona and many other states, madmen with a desire to kill face no obstacle in obtaining automatic weapons that they can conceal and carry. If they have the money, they can buy these sophisticated firearms — along with clips that let them fire up to 33 rounds in a matter of seconds.
In every eulogy to the Tucson victims, in columns, commentaries and speeches from all points of the political spectrum, we hear that these atrocious murders are too much to bear. We hear that the threat of gunfire at public gatherings is a threat to American democracy and cannot be tolerated. And at the same time, we hear that there is no political support for stricter controls on guns and ammunition, even to keep them out of the hands of Loughner and his ilk.
That contradiction practically defines America's social madness — because even as we weep for the little girl and the distinguished judge and all the other victims, we know that this same bloody scene will be replayed somewhere in this country, and soon.
The first sign of national mental health would be for Congress to enact Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's bill to outlaw high-capacity ammunition clips. If that seems unlikely, then remember this: Its opponents will be more culpable than any talk jock or cheap demagogue when the next mass killing occurs.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com). To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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