As speculation continues over what motivated Jared Loughner's shooting spree in Tucson Saturday, his actions have had a sobering effect on an increasingly hostile political atmosphere.
Debates between elected officials and members of the news media are often heated. But recent months have seen an increase in a type of hateful rhetoric among politicians, public servants and pundits alike that is intended to simply demonize opponents rather than argue with them.
Loughner's rampage ended with six dead and 14 critically wounded. Following his arrest, Loughner was charged with the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), two counts of first degree murder of federal employees and two counts of attempted murder of federal employees.
Conjecture over Loughner's motivations will continue forever. But as many public figures from across the political spectrum come forward to condemn his actions, some have begun to wonder if the tragedy in Tucson can help shed light on solutions to curb violent actions from disillusioned individuals.
Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), believes that Loughner's actions were not caused by an affiliation with any political party, but were those of a disturbed mind nonetheless influenced by the heated partisan atmosphere.
"We're not suggesting that he is an exponent of the right or that he was somehow created by the Republican party," Potok said. "This is a person who is clearly mentally ill but who has absorbed political rhetoric ... the issue is what is poisoning us more than any other single thing is the use of falsehoods and propaganda aimed at particular groups of people."
Potok believes the biggest danger in the dehumanization of political opponents is the type of audience receiving those messages. "It's not merely vehemence. It's that they are lying and defaming large groups of people and setting them up as targets. Mentally ill or unstable people are the very first to pick up on this kind of white-hot rhetoric," Potok said.
SPLC President Richard Cohen wrote in a blog post this morning, "We should expect sharp elbows and a healthy degree of ridicule to be thrown around by those in the political arena. The problem is the incendiary rhetoric, with its violence-laced metaphors and the spinning of paranoid fantasies. The problem is the non-stop demonization one hears from political opportunists trolling for votes and their media allies trolling for ratings."
One example Cohen points out is the "cross-hairs map" distributed by Sarah Palin's political action committee in early 2010 depicting gun sights over the Congressional districts of Democrats who voted in favor of health care reform, including that of Giffords.
Giffords herself appeared on MSNBC in March to comment on Palin's map and other acts of violence that had been taken against Democrats in right-leaning districts, stating, "For example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is, the way that she has it depicted has the cross-hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action."
Palin rejected the notion that her map had contributed to Loughner's actions. "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own," she stated in a video message Wednesday. "They begin and end with the criminals who commit them ... not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their first amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election."
"As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, I said, 'We know violence isn't the answer.' When we 'take up our arms,' we're talking about our vote," Palin said.
Loughner's former friend and classmate Bryce Tierney told Mother Jones that while Loughner described Giffords as a "fake" and felt she insufficiently answered his questions during an event several years ago, he did not lean in a particular ideological direction. Tierney said in an interview, "It wasn't like [Loughner] was in a certain party or went to rallies ... it's not like he'd go on political rants."
Zach Olson, who also knew Loughner, said on "Good Morning America" Wednesday that Loughner "did not watch TV. He disliked the news. He didn't listen to political radio. He didn't take sides. He wasn't on the left. He wasn't on the right."
Indeed, Loughner's YouTube presence covers views associated with both the radical right and left. His account includes entries on the need for a gold alternative to US currency, while another user's video allegedly shows Loughner burning an American flag. Likewise, his reading list includes both "The Communist Manifesto" and "Mein Kampf." He first met Giffords in 2007, before Palin or the Tea Party became part of the public discourse. The only common theme among Loughner's political views, Tierney said, was that the government was "fucking us over."
A few Congress members have announced plans to introduce stricter gun control legislation, including Reps. Pete King (R-New York) and Carolyn McCarthy (R-New York) and ABC Polling Director Gary Langer noted the similarities between Saturday's shooting and the Virginia Tech massacre, which led to increased public interest in preventing the mentally ill from obtaining guns.
But it seems unlikely that more rigid laws on gun ownership would have kept Loughner from purchasing one; as The Wall Street Journal wrote, Loughner was never legally declared unfit to own a weapon, and despite numerous reports of his disruptive behavior on campus at Pima Community College, was not under court-ordered treatment.
Arizona is also one of three states, along with Alaska and Vermont, that allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a background check.
Whatever the fate of the legislation, Potok believes nongovernmental groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) are also responsible for monitoring their language and the messages they promote. "The NRA is part of the problem," Potok said. "After Oklahoma City, they sent a letter to members describing federal agents as 'jack-booted thugs.' Right before Obama's election, [they] participated in a publicity campaign called 'Prepare for the Storm.'... What are we to make of that kind of talk?"
The Violence Policy Center released a report in April 2010 that noted the NRA's increased involvement with the anti-government Patriot movement, echoing the organization's actions prior to Timothy McVeigh's attack on an Oklahoma City federal building. "[As] was the case with Timothy McVeigh, the risk lies not so much with the organized members of these groups, but with the 'lone wolves' who not only embrace their rhetoric, but are willing to act on it with violence," the report stated.
But a crucial difference between Loughner and the extremists monitored by the SPLC, Potok said, is that Loughner is mentally unstable. "They're not smart or intelligent, but they're not insane," Potok said of high-profile domestic terrorists. "I don't think of Timothy McVeigh as insane. He's absolutely a mass murderer."
Potok wrote in a blog post on January 9 that Loughner is "probably best described as a mentally ill or unstable person who was influenced by the rhetoric and demonizing propaganda around him. Ideology may not explain why he allegedly killed, but it could help explain how he selected his target. One thing that seems clear is that Giffords ... was the nearest and most obvious representative of 'the government' that Loughner could find."
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik made a similar statement immediately following the tragedy. "When you look at unbalanced people - how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain people's mouths about tearing down the government - the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous."
Cohen agreed. "With six dead and 14 wounded, the sheriff would have been justified in using much stronger terms," he wrote. "Let us all hope that the week of reflection is more than a brief interlude in what has become a vicious political season."
President Obama spoke to an audience of over 26,000 people at a memorial event for the victims Wednesday night in Tucson. "Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems," Obama said. "We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future. But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other."