By Paul Farhi
Let’s blame Sarah Palin. Let’s blame Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Let’s blame the overheated rhetoric on the right and the left. And, as always, let’s blame the media.
Within moments of another American horror – the shooting of a congresswoman and 19 other people in Tucson on Saturday – the proclaiming of causes, reasons and influences began. The insta-commentators quickly formed a consensus: Something about our uncivil political conversation had acted like a virus on a 22-year-old “loner,” inflaming him with murderous rage.
“This is not epidemiology, we won’t find a bacillus in everybody’s lungs,” insisted MSNBC host Keith Olbermann in an e-mail Monday. “But if there are crosshairs over a Congresswoman’s name in October, and a former Vice Presidential candidate congratulating herself on her ‘bullseye’ campaign in November, and on a Friday the Congresswoman trades e-mails with a Republican about the need to tamp down the divisiveness and rhetoric, and on the Saturday she gets shot using a gun magazine that would’ve been unavailable if the Assault Weapons Ban hadn’t expired, the idea of ‘coincidence’ becomes increasingly irrelevant. The crazed do not need much to set them off.”
On Fox News on Sunday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, specifically linked comments by Palin and fellow conservative Sharron Angle with the shooting. “I think [their] statements are totally irresponsible and they’re not without consequences,” he said.
One little problem: We don’t know much for sure. The facts remain murky.
Nothing that has emerged so far suggests that accused shooter Jared Loughner, 22, had what might be described as a cogent political philosophy. His Internet postings were babble – sprawling, incoherent, the product of a disorderly and possibly deranged mind. Among his favorite books, he listed “Mein Kampf” and “The Communist Manifesto” – arguably a self-canceling pair – and such high-school staples as “The Old Man and the Sea” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Was Loughner influenced by Boo Radley, too?
Nor does anyone know what role, if any, Loughner’s political philosophy played in his alleged actions. One clue comes from Bryce Tierney, a friend of Loughner, who told Mother Jones magazine Monday that Loughner had repeatedly derided Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) as a “fake.” According to Tierney, Loughner grew angry at Giffords when she gave him an answer he found inadequate at one of her campaign events. Loonier still, Tierney says Loughner became obsessed with “lucid dreaming” – the idea that dreamers can consciously manipulate the content of their dreams.
It’s unclear which political party or cable news channels one can subscribe to via lucid dreaming.
The need to impose a coherent narrative on bewildering or seemingly inexplicable events is admittedly a basic human instinct, as old as man and fire. But narratives are very often wrong and shouldn’t be mistaken for truth.
Was it proper to conclude, as some conservatives did, that Al Gore “influenced” Unabomber Ted Kaczynski because Gore’s environmental tome, “Earth in the Balance,” was allegedly found among Kaczynski’s papers in his cabin? Hard to know; Kaczynski’s published “manifesto” was as jaggedly disjointed as Loughner’s Internet postings.
Was it safe to assume that John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, was a liberal seeking vengeance for Reagan’s conservative policies? In fact, the truth was much more bizarre: Hinckley was merely a deeply troubled young man out to impress a young movie star.
“There’s always this flailing around for answers,” said Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review. “The simple fact is, we don’t know why this guy did this. But from the little we know, there’s no indication that he’s linked to any cause. To say otherwise is just inflammatory.”
Rieder blames the hothouse, jump-to-conclusions rhetorical culture on the hothouse, jump-to-conclusions media culture. “In the cable era, it’s speculation and opinion and talk all the time. That’s what cable does. There’s a big vacuum that has to be filled with something. So you get all this [guessing] that doesn’t contribute much and can really distort things.”
That’s too easy a conclusion, however, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative think tank. “I don’t buy the notion that somehow our discourse is more debased. It’s just faster,” with judgment, erroneous and otherwise, injected into the public forum almost instantaneously. But the pre-cable, pre-Internet era had plenty of political roughhousing, too, he said.
Whatever happened to the principle of “evidence first, verdict afterward”? Graham asked. “The first conservative reaction is: ‘Blame the shooter.’ Blame the criminal first. Don’t blame his childhood, his upbringing, his environment or the media. We’re always on strongest ground arguing fact.”
Graham also offered a less partisan view: “I do wish we could all go comment-free for 24 hours. How about we just pray and be quiet?”
To that end, Graham may have offered up the most concise and compelling commentary about the Arizona murders when he took to Twitter not long after hearing the news. His tweet consisted of a single word: “Horrific.”