You have likely heard about Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords having been the target of a shooting that also left six other victims dead including Federal Judge John Roll and a 9-year old girl. The Congresswoman is in the hospital, not in good shape, but may pull through. In the immediate aftermath, there has been much made about the fact that the congresswoman is a Democrat in a state in which the Tea Party holds a good deal of sway, that the apparent shooter posted politically-oriented videos online (though it should be noted that he apparently also produced a number in which he ranted about grammar for no apparent reason), and this has led to people, including the local sheriff, arguing that the increasingly toxic and divorced-from-reality political rhetoric in the U.S. has been a factor in the shooting.
I understand why people are feeling this way, but I think they're looking for an answer that doesn't exist. While the current nature of political rhetoric is toxic to us as a nation, based on what I have read, I rather sincerely doubt that it had all that much to do with this particular crime. What little information has been released on the shooter (or, I suppose I should say shooting suspect, as he has not yet been convicted), Jared Loughner, indicates that while he would go off on rants similar in nature and content to what one hears from many Tea Party members, he is likely mentally ill. Perhaps political rhetoric directed him in a way that he would not have otherwise gone, and perhaps it did not. At this point, all of the shouting about the role that Fox News and right-wing talk radio played in the crime is premature*. We know little about this individual, and less about his motives.
Still, the narrative seems to be forming: the right-wing radio and television networks are dangerous, and must be stopped before they kill again! I have heard it repeated, and it might become part of the mythology surrounding this shooting. Interestingly, the only outlet that seems to be stepping back and placing trying to actually make sense of this ahead of sensationalistic finger pointing or making counter-recriminations is the allegedly "hard-left" National Public Radio.
I am reminded of the Columbine shootings. In the days following the shootings, we heard about how the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were loners, how they had been taunted and picked on and ostracized, how they were members of a group of students known as the "trench coast mafia" and part of the Goth scene, how their interest in role-playing games such as Vampire: The Masquerade led to their nihilistic view of life, and how their enjoyment of the music of Marylin Manson fueled their sense of rage. If you ask most people about this shooting, you will hear some or all of this repeated as fact, and even most journalists who covered the event now remember these details.
But none of it was true. The two had a close circle of friends and were not ostracized. Their taste in music and entertainment was not what early media reports claimed. They were not members of the Goth sub-culture. The "trenchcoat mafia" had long since graduated before these two went on their attack. They may have been occasional victims of bullies, but neither seems to have been the main target of anyone (and there may be some reason to think that Harris was a bully). One book, Columbine argues that Harris appears to have been a sociopath, and Klebold so desperate for the approval of Harris that he was ready to go along with what the other wanted. The narrative is wrong, it was based on supposition and a need to find something, anything to blame.
And it seems that the same thing is now happening in Arizona.
Did rhetoric and the frankly abhorrent claims spewed by people such as Hannity, Limbaugh, and O-Reilly play a role in the shooting? Perhaps, but we simply don't know yet. Was the shooting a part of an actual political assassination? It's possible, such things do happen, but, again, we don't have any real information and claiming that it is when information is lacking says more about the beliefs of the claimant than the motives of the criminal. When one is confronted with the, frankly, anti-reality, demonizing, fear-mongering, and vitriolic statements put forward by much of the political punditry, it is perfectly understandable that we want to blame them, and there have even been those who have warned that this sort of rhetoric would eventually lead to pointless violence. So, I understand the urge, but the fact remains that there is little evidence.
There is an on-going investigation, and part of the investigation is focusing ont he question of whether there was a conspiracy and if the crime had political motives. But until the investigation concludes and the prosecution begins to make public it's case, we should avoid coming to any conclusions. We know little about the shooter himself, and even less about whether or not other people were involved in the shooting. This could be little more than a mentally ill man acting out of insanity, or it could be something that reflects poorly on where our national politics are headed, or it could be something else entirely. We simply don't know much right now, and to claim that we do is an act of ignorance.
*And on the off-chance that you think I'm taking the side of the pundits, try looking through some of the other entries on thei blog in which I discuss the media or politics - I have no love for these people, but that doesn't mean that I am willing to blame them for a crime rather than look for the real cause.