It’s now a major secondary story in the Giffords shooting: who or what’s to blame for the carnage? It began almost as soon as the story broke, when fingers were pointed quite prominently even before anything was known about the shooter except that he was a young man, and that he had been taken into custody.
The anti-gun contingent sprang to action almost immediately, as did the anti-Palin faction and a particular loud-mouthed Democratic sheriff, in marked contrast to the pleas from the MSM and the left for verbal restraint in speculating about the motives of the Fort Hood killer.
Almost all the blaming in the Giffords shooting comes from the left against the right. And this despite the fact that Giffords, a Blue Dog Democrat, could just as likely have been a political target of either side, since she stands roughly in the middle.
It would be easier to judge the finger-pointers as impartial if they were equally incensed against rhetoric and images from the left as from the right. A display of evenhandedness would at least serve to establish some sort of arguable sincerity. For example, when campaigner Obama advised supporters to bring a gun to the fight if the opposition brought a knife, wouldn’t he have been to blame, too, for upping the ante?
Or do mere words lack the power to ignite acts such as Saturday’s shooting? (If one is to believe a friend of Loughner’s, the killer himself thought that “words mean nothing.”) And if mere words have no such power, what does?
I don’t pretend to have the answer to what motivates violence of this sort, except to say that it is highly unlikely to have a single cause. But common sense tells us that many if not most of such shooters are propelled by primarily private demons. Yes, they are not isolated from societal influences in general, and words of political rhetoric are part of that. But such words are hardly the only part, or even a major part.
Was this a politically motivated assassination, anyway? Giffords was indeed a political target, but she was hardly a major political figure. Politicians in general have a special visibility, something they share with celebrities (think John Lennon and Andy Warhol), and which can make them targets for the homicidal crazies among us, and not always for primarily political reasons.
Political assassins tend to be of two types: the first is the coldly calculating killer (or co-conspirators) motivated by a strategic move for power and/or a political vendetta, and the second is the lone crazy person. Some, such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Sarah Jane Moore (remember her?) inhabit territory somewhere between the two (they also happen to inhabit territory on the left, a fact most leftist commentators tend to conveniently forget).
The first group do have primarily political motivations, but they are highly unlikely to have been motivated or even affected at all by casually inflammatory rhetoric. Their provocations are of a deeper sort.
How often have this first sort of killer or killers been behind political assassinations in the United States? Well, it depends who you ask; Kennedy conspiracists are adamant that such plotters were behind Oswald, and if theories about the mob’s involvement in the 1933 Mayor Cermak slaying are true, that would be another example of a group effect. Lincoln’s assassination featured a number of Confederate sympathizers who worked together and planned to take over the government, as well.
But more often in this country, assassins are just plain crazy. Maybe not legally insane — few qualify for that designation — but crazy in the vernacular sense of unhinged and obviously out of touch with reality. As disturbed individuals, their thinking is idiosyncratic and unpredictable, and their propensity for violence is sometimes telegraphed and noted ahead of time, although often formless and quite general. More importantly, what finally tips them over the edge into action can in many cases never be known, and appears almost arbitrary from the outside.
Who could have ever guessed, for example, the trajectory of John Hinckley, Reagan’s wannabee assassin whose bizarre obsession with Jodie Foster in the movie Taxi Driver led to the near-fatal shooting of the president? Loughner’s writings and YouTube videos so far indicate that his real motivations are likely to have been at least as idiosyncratic, bizarre, and incomprehensible as Hinckley’s, and probably more so. In fact, Loughner’s mind may be so disordered that he could end up making Hinckley look like a model of rationality in comparison.
Those who linked Loughner’s act to inflammatory Tea Party rhetoric didn’t want to wait to find out what they were dealing with. After all, political hay was to be made. If they had been a little more judicious, they would have discovered that this particular killer had been telegraphing his disordered and chaotic thinking for quite some time, thoroughly frightening quite a few people and institutions in the process, although all seemed powerless to stop the train wreck in the making.
But political points aside, what is the possible role of heated political rhetoric, be it on the left or the right, in motivating violent acts such as Loughner’s? It’s entirely unknown, but there’s no particular reason to believe such speech is especially influential. The first category of shooters — the cold-blooded and rational political assassins, out for political gain—are highly unlikely to be swayed by it. The second — the crazies, for want of a better term — can be motivated by nearly anything, and conventional political rhetoric tends to play only a small part in their confused and rambling diatribes.
Mere words are hardly enough to incite an act so extreme and so vicious, whatever the strength of one’s political convictions, and however great the anger at the opposition. Most people understand figures of speech, whether the mention of guns be Sarah Palin’s “reload” statements or the president’s campaign call for bringing guns to knife fights, and most homicidal lunatics are motivated by something far deeper, and far more perverse.