Over the years, I’ve seen people who were shot and killed: slumped in a car in front of DuSable High School, crumpled on a sidewalk in Englewood, laid out on a stainless steel table at the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
In none of the instances did I feel at all tempted to walk over to the pool of darkening crimson, dip in a pair of fingers into the gore and use it to smear a message — “GUNS KILL,” say — on a nearby wall. That would be unimaginable. Your primary thoughts at such a moment are of horror and the victim, of the violated human body and just how much blood it can contain.
Distance is an anesthetic, however, a stimulant and a narcotic.
Saturday’s shooting delivered a triple shock — the first jolt, that a newly re-elected congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, could be gunned down, and in the middle of that most humble of democratic activities, a “Congress on Your Corner” meeting with constituents in a Safeway grocery store parking lot.
The second shock, the sheer number of victims: 20 — 14 wounded, including the congresswoman, six dead, including a federal judge, John M. Roll, and a 9-year-old girl, Christina Green. All from a lone gunman, apparently, Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old suspect captured at the scene.
And the third shock was seeing just how quickly the whole thing devolved into the same tired, bitter, vitriolic Punch-and-Judy partisan battle that has dominated our discourse for years. If there was a moment of national shock, it was just that, a moment.
In my view, it hardly matters which side you take: whether you are a Democrat making the leap from the noxious rhetoric of the right to this specific crime — a leap of faith, in my eyes, not at all justified by the facts. Indeed, a former classmate of the suspect called him “left wing, quite liberal.” Even if the charge fits, it’s too easy. I’ve attended Tea Party rallies, and noticed that, for all the vehemence of their signs, they didn’t go burn taco stands. This was a release of steam and fear by honked-off middle-aged white people, a chance for them to yell about how life has treated them unfairly because they have to pay taxes. If that kind of carping led to actual violence, massacres would happen every week.
When I heard the shooter was 22, I knew the Tea Party wasn’t a factor. Too young. Youth is the realm of white supremacists and mental illness (if a distinction can be made between the two).
It is true that fear of government is a continuum, from legitimate beefs about waste, bureaucracy and overregulation to crazy fixations with the gold standard and finding secret messages in currency. But one extreme doesn’t indict the middle, any more than David Berkowitz casts doubt upon pet ownership because his neighbor’s dog, he claimed, told him to commit the Son of Sam murders.
Saturday’s shooting tells us what all shootings tell us — that life is fragile and often too short, that violence is cruel and random, that mental illness ravages lives — think of Loughner, what his life will be like from now on, facing a half century in prison or a psychiatric hospital. Think of his parents who lose a son and gain, fairly or unfairly, an unspoken blame they will never escape.
The reaction to the shootings is a separate matter from the tragedy itself. Saturday evening the Los Angeles Times posted an on-point editorial:
“Within minutes, hundreds of commenters were at work across the Web loudly seeking to appropriate the story for their own purposes, in many cases fanning it for maximum fear, and injecting it into the roiling narrative of anger, partisanship and paranoia that has taken over so much of the national political conversation.”
The motivations of the shooter are irrelevant. It is OUR motivations we should examine and understand. The reaction to the shootings reminds us how political extremism saps our humanity. It’s the same dynamic that allows young men to strap on explosives and go blow themselves up in crowded markets — the trumping of tender feeling by delusional political obsession. You would not, if it were your wife shot in the head in Tucson, flutter your fingers on the keyboard and wax snarky about Obamacare. You would not, if it were your father, murdered in a grocery store parking lot, carp about Sarah Palin’s rhetorical excesses. You would not, if it were your third-grader, your darling daughter killed on a Saturday morning because she was in the student council and wanted to meet a real congresswoman, pontificate about our cherished Second Amendment rights. The victims had blood to shed — these online observers seem cold, bloodless and inhuman.
Press your fingers, not into the carnage, seeking something crimson to underscore your point, but against your own neck. Find a pulse, if you have one, and then try to conduct yourself accordingly.