President Obama will address the nation tonight at the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Arizona, but the parents of gunman Jared Lee Loughner have already spoken. They issued a statement yesterday saying, “There are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We don’t understand why this happened. It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday. We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss.”
It’s clear that Loughner’s parents feel some level of responsibility for what happened in Arizona on Saturday. Loughner’s father reportedly questioned him about a black bag he was carrying the morning of the shooting, but was unable to stop his son from fleeing. Loughner was also stopped by police for running a red light Saturday morning, but was sent away with a warning due to the fact that he had no prior convictions.
Much has been written about Loughner’s mental state and whether or not his actions were politically motivated in any way. Many pundits, including our own Katie Allison Granju, pointed to Sarah Palin’s hit list as an example of the vitriolic rhetoric that has created a climate ripe for violence in this country. Not surprisingly, those on the right have pointed to the fact that Loughner listed “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kampf” as some of his favorite reads. Palin’s initial reaction to the tragedy was simple – in fact, too simple. She left a message on her Facebook page Saturday that reads, “My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.”
Today, Palin spoke publicly for the first time since Saturday, releasing a video entitled, “America’s Enduring Strength.” Looking tired and clearly reading a speech she did not write, Palin not-so-subtly tried to defend her crosshair-covered map and accused “journalists and pundints” (her pronunciation) of manufacturing a “blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn.” She goes on to suggest that heated political discourse is not to blame for the shooting, and she has the gall to ask, when was political discourse less heated? She then answers her question with a question, adding, “Back in those calm days when political leaders literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?”
In a subsequent breath, she says, “We must condemn violence if our republic is to endure,” then goes on to spew a lot of nonsense about freedom, prayer, God, and – of course – 9/11.
From the video:
“There’s a bittersweet irony that the strength of the American spirit shines brightest in times of tragedy. We saw that in Arizona. We saw the tenacity of those clinging to life, the compassion of those that kept the victims alive and the heroism of those who overpowered a deranged gunman. Like many, I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on what happened and praying for guidance. After the shocking tragedy, I listened at first puzzled, then with concern and now with sadness to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event. President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.” It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions. Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them. Not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle.”
The problem with Palin’s argument is, pols on both sides of the aisle did not use maps covered in crosshairs during the last election. I’m not saying Palin is to blame for Loughner’s act – I don’t know that anyone has said that. What people have said is that a map filled with literal targets contributes to a violent society – and I’ll add – Republicans like Palin allow a violent society easy access to guns. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Loughner was ill and disturbed, and one of the positive outcomes of this tragedy could be greater awareness about the mental illnesses that are prolific in young people today. But I’d like to ask everyone this: what comes first? A violent society or mentally ill young people? Heated political rhetoric creates an atmosphere that makes people feel ill at ease and on edge, and those of us that are deeply sensitive and susceptible to mental instability – especially young people – are going to feel that collective pain more intensely.
You cannot deny that American values – especially as Republicans see them – have a callous edge to them. Palin is spouting off about personal responsibility and how Loughner is an evil man who acted alone, but I don’t hear her taking her share of the responsibility for the kind of vitriolic rhetoric she spews. This speech might have meant something if in addition to condemning a lone, deranged gunman she had acknowledged that she and others like her (Limbaugh, Beck, etc.) are issuing the type of rallying cry that deranged gunmen are going to want to respond to – even if Loughner’s act was apolitical. (Also, how is shooting a Congresswoman not politically motivated? Loughner may have seen himself as an outsider, but clearly he was upset with and paranoid about the U.S. Government.)
I’ve thought a lot about personal responsibility in the wake of my divorce. When I left my husband, I had nothing. No home, no money, no job – and a kid. Thankfully I have a mother who was able to provide me the support I needed to get back on my feet, get a job, pay down my debt. During the last two years, I’ve developed a deeper sense of personal responsibility than I’ve ever had, and an intense desire to be able to provide for myself and my daughter without any outside help. As a single mother, I think not only about being responsible for my own health and happiness, but my daughter’s. And therefore every time something goes wrong in my daughter’s life, I think about the ways in which I am responsible for it. My daughter had an accident while we were out shopping. Did I offer her an opportunity to go to the bathroom before we left? If I did, the responsibility lies squarely on her shoulders. If I didn’t, then I am partially to blame, because it’s my job as the mother of a 5-year-old to encourage her to have good habits.
That may seem like a silly example to draw from, but I don’t think it’s a stretch. Sarah Palin and all of the insane right-wing pundits of the world are not responsible for the fact that Loughner killed six people in Arizona and wounded many others any more than video games and violent movies are responsible for the acts of all those who’ve participated in school shootings in the last few months. But we are all responsible for what we say and the energy we put out into the world, and if that energy is negative and mean-spirited with violent overtones, people are going to react to that. We are all reacting to that every day. It’s all well and good to preach personal responsibility, but Palin’s personal responsibility is to examine the ideas she’s putting out into the world and determine if they’re fit for consumption in the context of fair political discourse.
While reading about Loughner’s family this afternoon, a quote from one of their neighbors really struck me. 70-year-old Wayne Smith described Loughner’s parents as “devastated and guilt-ridden.” According to Smith, “Loughner’s mother has been in bed, crying nonstop since the shooting rampage on Saturday,” ABC reports. Smith says, “I told them they didn’t fail. They taught him everything about right and wrong. We all know you can teach someone everything and have no control how it works out.” And yet, Loughner’s parents are surely feeling some level of responsibility for his actions, as is normal. To me, it’s Palin’s reaction that’s abnormal here, distancing herself from any wrong-doing of any kind, even unrelated to the shooting, pointing fingers at those she accuses of pointing fingers.
Palin is not the only one refusing to see the light, though. TIME magazine reports that since the shooting, the FBI has seen a 60% increase in background checks for handgun purchase in Arizona compared to the same time last year. Fighting guns with guns will only lead to more gun death, a fact that depresses me to no end. My instinct is to write something snarky here toward gun owners about their kids taking personal responsibility when they bring those guns to school, but I don’t want to fight fire with fire, either. Violence is serious, and the only way to fight it is with love.