Diagnosing the Arizona Shooting

by David Finkel

AFTER THE INITIAL horror, the responses to the massacre in Tucson have settled into the usual political dialogue-of-the deaf, and like most such discourse these days it is pretty much useless all around.

Some Tea Party types are calling the shooter Jared Loughner a “leftist lunatic” because he reportedly owned books by Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx – not that there’s any evidence that he’s actually read, much less understood, any of them (as if Marx’s writings had anything to do with individual violence in any case). Within the left and liberal-to-center media, there’s been lots of chatter that the massacre was “triggered” by the rantings of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin’s website crosshairs image, or the “overheated rhetoric” of the political debate. But we don’t know that Loughner actually listened to Rush or visited Palin’s website or paid much attention to politics at all.

In any case, the problem with politics in America isn’t that it’s “overheated” or “hate- filled,” but that it’s largely empty, dominated from mildly liberal to hard-right by corporate power, and that the “hate rhetoric” moves in to fill the vacuum of content.

At first, of course, it made sense to wonder whether Loughner was actually a lone gunman or if perhaps others were involved, qualifying the massacre as an act of domestic terrorism. There’s plenty of terror in U.S. history -- most notably the wave of lynchings of African Americans from the defeat of Reconstruction until the Civil Rights Movement, but more recently also the Oklahoma City bombing.

It seems now, however, that Loughner was hardly an ideologically motivated terrorist. (Some of his writings apparently complain about “literacy,” suggesting a racist bias against immigrants, but that’s not whom he shot up in any case.) While hundreds of federal agents are swarming at taxpayers’ expense over every aspect of his past life, it’s increasingly clear that they’ll discover what’s already emerging from the accounts of his acquaintances – Loughner is an untreated schizophrenic, possibly self-medicated with drugs and alcohol that may have made the illness worse. Although he targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he could have gone after Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, or his own parents or community college classmates.

So there are really two lessons here. The first, obviously, is that the carnage was as great as it was because a mentally disturbed individual could purchase a Glock machine pistol with a 30-plus-bullet clip, no questions asked. This is not a weapon for home self-defense, and I don’t think you use it for hunting moose or pheasants either (although I’ll try to check with Ms. Palin and Dick Cheney to make sure). It’s hard to see what the most avid gun owner would do with it other than mass murder.

The second point is that because we have no national health insurance in America, and because state and local mental health services are being sacrificed on the altar of budget-slashing, there are now probably tens or even hundreds of thousands of untreated mental patients on the streets. Most of them are dangerous only to themselves (they comprise a sizable part of the homeless population), some are a serious risk to their own families, and a small number are potential Jared Loughners – not all that many, but enough to generate irreparable harm and heartbreak.

It’s a truism for those of us on the left that mental illness itself is socially conditioned, and that a sicker society will produce a greater number of sick individuals. And tragedies don’t happen only in America. In China, there have been a rash of fatal knife-wielding attacks on nurseries. In Germany years ago, a sick fan obsessed with tennis star Steffi Graff stabbed Monica Seles during a match, almost killing her. But almost only in America do the perpetrators have easy access to virtually unregulated automatic assault firearms.

This, we can be sure, won’t change anytime soon. And while politicians will spend all kinds of time using this case to make arguments for the death penalty, and whether Congressional representatives should have 24/7 Secret Service protection, or whether political speech needs to be censored to “protect society,” this mass murder will hardly even enter the debate over repealing or defunding health care reform. More mental as well as physical illness will go undiagnosed or untreated, and more death and social destruction will ensue – mostly quietly while no one notices, but once in a while in the public square, where everyone can see but no one is allowed to understand why it happened.