In the aftermath of Saturday’s shooting spree in Arizona, cable news networks and politicians fixated on one question: Who’s to blame? Who or what inspired the assailant to target Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a “Congress on the Corner” event in Tucson? What, exactly, caused the accused—identified as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner—to snap, killing a 9-year-old, a federal judge, a Giffords aide and three bystanders?
Partisan fingers quickly pointed to Sarah Palin and the graphic she released in the fall that featured crosshairs over the districts of politically vulnerable Dems including Giffords. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina said the suspect “saw a Second Amendment remedy,” referring to Sharron Angle’s ill-considered remark during her failed bid to unseat Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. Others blamed Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or the Tea Party movement as a whole.
The incendiary messages of campaigns past, cast in this new light, seemed even more stupid and reckless. But the fact is, we might never understand what motivated the shooter. By all accounts, the suspect is a severely disturbed young man with no coherent political ideology and no coherence at all, really. Given his history of nonsensical ramblings and erratic behavior, it seems profoundly unfair to name Angle or any other public figure as an accomplice. So going forward, a better question than “Who’s to blame?” might be “How can we heal?”
Already, there are signs of hope. The whirlwind touched off long-overdue soul-searching on what constitutes acceptable speech in the public sphere. Lawmakers and media figures appeared careful to strike a more civil tone. Even the chairman of Fox News is apparently a comrade in comity, having told the network’s hosts to “shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.” Whether the more reasonable rhetoric sticks is, in a sense, up to us. If we shun the most outrageous commentary, if we stop rewarding them with our votes and our remotes, they’ll stop, too.