One year has elapsed since a brooding psychopath named Jared Lee Loughner killed six people in Tucson, Arizona and injured 18 others. His intended target, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, suffered major injuries but survived the shooting. Her presence at a memorial this weekend demonstrated that although the healing process is a long and difficult one, she is recovering.
Regrettably, the passage of time has done little to correct persistent fallacies about who was responsible for the massacre, and who was not.
The latest writer to perpetuate the falsehood that various political and cultural forces on the far-right are responsible for the tragedy is Tom Zoellner, author of “A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America,” a new book about the tragedy.
He claims special authority to address the issue, since he lived in Tucson in the months leading up to the shooting and worked closely with Giffords. In a promotional op-ed titled “Who Shot Gabrielle Giffords?” Zoellner writes: “Dismissing Loughner as a random ‘black swan,’ free of all antecedents or influences, is worse than facile or lazy. It is actively dangerous, for it allows us to ignore the contributing human context, which is something we can change.”
Zoellner goes on to list the economy, fear of illegal immigrants and a toxic political culture as features of the broader social context in which Arizonans lived at the time. The implication is that there was something uniquely sinister pervading Arizona, and that this evil spirit — the collective anger of people who were mad about government spending, mad about Barack Obama, mad about immigrants — motivated Loughner’s attack.
I appreciate that Zoellner does not directly fault Sarah Palin, the tea party and other members of the political right — an absurd blame game engaged in by numerous commentators who should have known better, including Paul Krugman of The New York Times. But though Zoellner’s thinking is more subtle, it is still wrong.
I lived in Arizona during the months leading up to the shooting, and travelled to Tucson during that time. I attended tea party rallies, including a big one in Tucson. So I have some experience with the people Zoellner believes were participants in a climate that influenced the shooting. The people of Arizona — and the people at those rallies, specifically — were deeply concerned about immigration. Perhaps many could be said to have feared and hated illegal immigrants. These fears manifested themselves in troubling ways, like the brazenly anti-immigrant and constitutionally suspect bill SB-1070. And yes, these people were angry about the economy. Still, I don’t see any connection between them and Loughner, who neither associated with them nor shared their views.
Besides, if a bad economy and poisoned political discourse somehow push would-be killers over the edge, why just Arizona? Aside from my four-month stint there (and another in D.C.), I have lived my whole life in Michigan, where there has been just as much anger toward political figures and economic realities — more, perhaps. And yet violence has declined in Michigan over the past few decades, as it has in Arizona, as it has in nearly every state across the country. There is no rash of political killings undermining U.S. democracy, nor is dissatisfaction with the country’s direction threatening to destabilize civil society.
It’s more than a little incendiary, then, to draw imaginary lines of causation between the mood of the nation and the actions of an apolitical psychopath. Loughner believed he was living in a dream world akin to “The Matrix” and that people were brainwashed by grammar. He held a personal grudge against Giffords because she failed to answer a nonsensical question he had asked her at an event some years before. To say that he was substantially motivated by anything other than his own mental instability just doesn’t hold up to the facts.
Alas that some people need to imagine vast and sinister forces engineering every tragedy. Sometimes, the real villain is hiding in plain sight.