It was the gun. It was the mental illness. It was the Tea. It was "Second Amendment remedies" and "reload" and candidates’ districts marked with cross hairs. It was glennbeckrushlimbaughmichaelsavagetalkradiotv with its 24/7 fomenting of hatred and contempt for Democrats, its antigovernment paranoia. It was the incivility. It was Arizona. It was the Internet. It was hypermasculinity and contempt for women. It was the gun.
It’s been only a few days since Jared Loughner opened fire with a Glock 19 in the Tucson supermarket parking lot where Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a meet-and-greet. And with Giffords gravely wounded, six dead and thirteen others injured, already millions of words have been written about why. In the Guardian, my Nation colleagues Gary Younge and Max Blumenthal point to Arizona’s poisonous right-wingery, some of it aimed directly at Giffords, a well-liked centrist Democrat: after she voted in favor of healthcare reform, her Tucson office was vandalized; at a 2009 meet-and-greet, a protester dropped a gun. In a letter to the New York Times, Giffords constituent Ronnie Bergen recalls attending a healthcare forum arranged by the Congresswoman: "the event was packed with anti-Obama people, and the tone was ugly: shouting, rude, menacing individuals…. It was a chilling experience, even for one who had grown up in the bitter politics of the 1960s." As Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik put it, Arizona has become "the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Might an unbalanced young man be influenced by the world around him? The very idea is "political opportunism," harrumphs David Brooks: Loughner was simply deranged, possibly schizophrenic and "locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it."
In a way, sure. For example, there’s no evidence that Loughner knew about Sarah Palin’s notorious electoral map on which Giffords’s district was one of twenty marked with cross hairs. This was a man who disrupted his community college math class by shouting out questions about the end of the world, posted gibberish on YouTube and was fired as an animal-shelter volunteer because he deliberately walked puppies in an area quarantined for parvovirus. But you don’t have to be Michel Foucault to understand that mentally ill people express their demons in ways that are culturally—and politically—inflected, and in Arizona that inflection is right-wing antigovernment hysteria. He may never have mentioned Palin (and really, must she always be the center of attention?), but his obsessions—the gold standard, government tyranny through mind control, the "second Constitution"—are familiar themes of far-right patriot movements. Mark Potok, who monitors wing-nut extremism for the Southern Poverty Law Center, sees in the jumble of novels on Loughner’s MySpace page a theme of the individual against the totalitarian state, with Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto thrown in "as variants of a kind of generalized ‘smash the state’ attitude." And David Brooks, let’s get real: Loughner opened fire on a government event—a Democratic government event—not a shopping mall, a swimming pool or a classroom at Pima County Community College, from which he’d been suspended.
It used to be that after a spectacular killing there would be a lot of hopeful/rueful talk about keeping it from happening again: the media would be full of self-examinations and mea culpas, calls for more tolerance, more civic engagement and better laws. Who hasn’t vowed never to be like Kitty Genovese’s neighbors? Now right-wingers claim that they are the real victims of the Tucson shooting: Palin has just released a video claiming that attacks on her cross-hairs map are a "blood libel." (Because it’s Sarah Palin, one wonders if she even knows that "blood libel" almost always refers to anti-Semitic accusations that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood for ritual purposes.) Rush Limbaugh "jokes" that Loughner has Democrats’ "full support" because now they can take away your guns.
As if. Democrats abandoned gun control years ago, when they decided it lost Gore crucial votes in 2000 and they pivoted to go after the white male vote. Even progressives dropped the issue as hopeless, part of what made NASCAR dads and other red-state he-men see them as effete, effeminate and out of touch. Jon Tester, Brian Schweitzer and Jim Webb got high marks from both the NRA and progressives. Now there are some sixty-five pro-gun Democrats in Congress, including, ironically, Giffords. What are the chances they’ll support the bill Carolyn McCarthy is proposing, which would ban the sale of large ammunition clips like the one Loughner used? Or even Republican Peter King’s call to ban carrying guns within 1,000 feet of certain elected officials and judges? As Howard Dean told Lawrence O’Donnell on The Last Word, "The so-called pro-gun lobby has won," and the most we can do is "something around the edges." That is what passes for a positive, muscular, vigorous response in the most highly armed nation in the world, with ninety guns for every 100 people, 10,000 gun murders a year and 20,000 more gun deaths from suicide and accidents.
We can’t ban speech. But whatever Loughner’s demons turn out to be, what let him kill six people and wound fourteen was that he had access to a gun—and a magazine that let him shoot thirty-three bullets without reloading. (Indeed, the Glock 19 was the same model gun Seung-Hui Cho used to kill thirty-two people at Virginia Tech.) It’s a little pathetic—has it really come to this, that it will be a huge uphill battle to ban something that has no purpose except to kill up to thirty-three people before anyone can stop you? Apparently, yes. In Arizona, Glocks have been flying off the shelves since the shootings. Meanwhile, in Congress, Democrat Heath Shuler and Republican Jason Chaffetz have announced they will be packing heat.