Today a gunman, identified by the press as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, walked up to the parking lot of a Tucson supermarket and shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and shot and killed as many as six other people, including a 9-year-old girl and federal judge John Roll. But he did so much more than that. When he pulled the trigger on his semiautomatic pistol, he also attacked American government, the American public and its right to assemble peacefully and without fear—and consequently his assault was also an assault on American democracy. And that is why I am shaking with rage as I type.
Tonight there is much rage across the blogosphere and on Twitter too—140-character declarations that Sarah Palin has blood on her hands; that Glenn Beck has blood on his hands; that Rush Limbaugh or Michele Bachmann or the Tea Party or Birthers or Birchers or nativists have blood on their hands. Through the looking glass on right-wing websites there are assertions that Loughner was a lefty, based on nothing more than the books he listed on his Myspace account or comments he allegedly made on incoherent Youtube videos or tweets from an alleged former classmate who said he was a leftist in 2007—much of which could also easily be used to assert that his rampage was motivated by right-wing tendencies. The impulse to conclude, without any knowledge of Loughner’s motives or state of mind, that this was a partisan attack has proved nearly irresistible—for those on both left and right.
It may very well turn out to be a partisan attempt at assassination. But we don’t know that yet.
What we do know is that Loughner targeted an elected official, that he took advantage of the fact that she was meeting her constituents in public to do so and that some of those constituents were also murdered by him. Even if it turns out that Loughner had no partisan or ideological motives to speak of, that is all we need to know to say definitively that he committed a political crime in the broadest and most egregious sense. He violently attacked political public speech—and that should trouble all of us. Giffords could have been a Republican; those bystanders could have been her supporters; or they could have been her fiercest critics, showing up to confront her votes for healthcare; or they could have been without political party, like the 9-year-old girl who will never grow up to cast a vote. Everyone who seeks to engage the political process has been hurt today.
Journalists are right to point out that Giffords had been violently targeted after she voted for healthcare reform; that Sarah Palin put crosshairs on her district in campaign literature on her website (a post that has subsequently been scrubbed); and that Giffords’s 2010 opponent, Jesse Kelly, once invited his supporters to "shoot a fully automatic M16" to "get on target for victory" and "remove Gabrielle Giffords from office." They are also right to note that in the past few years it’s been right-wing extremists who have most sought to shut down the open political process by disrupting town hall meetings and by indulging in language that casts political opponents as un-American and traitorous.
But at the moment, we don’t know if Loughner was influenced by any of this—or that he was even aware of any of it. But we don’t need to draw the lines of culpability so tightly to conclude that it is politics writ large that he assaulted today. And for tonight at least, we don’t need to know anything more to cherish more dearly the practice of politics and citizenship and government as something noble in its intent, something to expand and celebrate—instead of something to denigrate as the enemy of the people.