The Common Good
March 2011

There Are No Lone Gunmen

by Elizabeth Palmberg | March 2011

We can't avoid the tough questions on how to change the culture in which we all participate.

The tragic Tucson shooting spree this January provoked a deluge of analysis and opinion, much of it centered on the sorry state of our public discourse, and some of it actually enlightening.

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As we are too well aware, rhetorical violence and incivility permeate today's political speech, and that has been particularly acute in Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s district (her electoral opponent last fall, for example, offered funders the chance to "shoot a fully automatic M-16"). But it's fair to say that there is not a direct link between such speech and Jared Loughner's decision to buy a gun in November and direct it against the "Congress on Your Corner" event in January.

In the wake of the shooting, much attention has justifiably focused on Loughner's mental illness, drug use, and apparently troubled family life. But schizophrenia alone (assuming that's the diagnosis of reported shooter Loughner) is no catchall explanation for violence; schizophrenics are no more likely to commit murder than are substance abusers. And thus much of the post-melee analysis has focused on the vitriol in our public debate, and whether or not it contributed to the actions of a mentally unstable person.

But even if there is little evidence that the shooter's actions were based on poisonous political discourse, the question remains: How much do we want our discourse to bear any resemblance to his action?

I am reminded of activist-theologian Ched Myers' reading of Mark 5, in which Jesus heals a man whose demons are definitely not solely individual. Rather, they're steeped in the terminology of the occupying Romans: named "Legion" (a term that referred to Roman troops), they rush into a "herd" (a word used of military recruits) after Jesus "gave them leave" (a term that echoes a military command). Of course, the Romans didn't tell the demoniac to live among tombs and cut himself -- but they did propagate a culture of death. The local folks didn’t tell him to act out their internalized rage and fear at occupation -- but they did get frightened when Jesus healed him. And the man's neighbors didn't create demonic forces from scratch, any more than Sarah Palin created schizophrenia -- but it's pretty clear that, somehow, the demons, the imperial troops, and the occupied were sharing a vocabulary.

  • Has political speech, by prioritizing attack over dialogue, eroded its ability to convey meaning? Loughner reportedly harbored a grudge against Rep. Giffords since a 2007 public appearance at which he asked the nonsensical yet suggestive question, "What is government if words have no meaning?" The stark irony is that centrist Giffords worked against the attack-language trend; the very night before the shooting, she emailed a Republican friend for help "to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down."
  • Why is it okay to use pervasive gun imagery in public debate -- and to assume, flying in the face of the evidence, that weapons are a rational solution to society's problems?
  • Why are semiautomatic guns, and large-capacity magazines, available to the public, including people like Loughner?
  • Is cultural paranoia about big government increasing individual paranoia? While rational debates about what government should and should not do are not to blame for Loughner's belief the government is exercising "mind control ... by controlling grammar," his YouTube rants about the gold standard and paranoid misrepresentations of the Constitution show he was not insulated from extremist political discourse.
  • Is the impulse to blame individuals -- including Palin -- a way of avoiding the much tougher question of how to change the culture in which we all participate?

Almost a walking metaphor, Loughner was an apparent loner attacking social relationships and those who foster them: Giffords and her constituents. The judge who just came from Mass. Husbands and wives. The little girl in student council and the neighbor who befriended her. But this tragedy serves as a reminder that we must never cease to treasure, pray for, and nurture the relationships that bind us together.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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