As of this writing, it appears that the bloodbath in Tucson that killed six people and injured 14 others was ignited by a deranged man propelled by personal demons and not political fanaticism. The initial reaction of those who posited a strong and direct link between the accused gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, and the heated rhetoric of last fall’s campaign probably drew more on their fears than on the facts.
But to categorically state that the tenor of public discourse and the coarseness of public culture had no role to play whatsoever — a point Sarah Palin arrogantly stated in her inflammatory, slickly produced video released January 12 — is outrageous and must be refuted. Yes, individuals are ultimately responsible for their actions. But also yes: A society that extols fighting words, celebrates violent imagery and, most importantly, allows guns in the hands of the mentally ill, shares responsibility, too.
Why was Loughner allowed to walk into Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson on November 30 and purchase the weapon that authorities allege was used in the rampage? Federal law prohibits selling a gun to someone who is mentally ill. But Loughner, who was not clinically diagnosed, never made it into any database.
“The 22-year-old shooter in Tucson was not allowed to enlist in the military, was asked to leave school, and was considered ‘very disturbed’ (according to former classmates), but that’s not enough to keep someone from legally buying as many guns as they want in America,” writes Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The unconscionable expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons, combined with increasingly lax gun laws in states like Arizona, have made it far too easy for the angry and unhinged to express themselves in ways that harm or kill others.
Beyond that, words have power. Jewish tradition teaches that not simply hate speech but any talk that denigrates or incites others must be checked. Those, like Palin, who wrap themselves in the mantle of history need to speak less out of ignorance and more out of a true understanding of the power of words. When in her video Palin called criticism of her a “blood libel,” she distorted those terrifying words, offending Jews and indeed anyone who know what they really mean.
Sarah Palin is hardly a victim of the tragedy in Tucson. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is the victim. And Christina Green. And Judge John M. Roll. And Gabriel Zimmerman. And the others at the grocery store that day whose senseless deaths and injuries should remind us of our civic responsibility to strive for a more respectful, peaceful American culture.