In the dazed aftermath of the mayhem in Tucson, there has been much digital ink spilled measuring out the blame for the attack on the indiscriminate rhetoric of America's permanent campaign culture as if specific percentages of culpability could be affixed to the loose and unpleasant lips of a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. I am not about to defend the lazy and toxic hyperbole of the prevailing political culture, certainly there has been far too much talk of tyranny, treason, and "second amendment" responses in recent cultural-political "debates." I do think words matter and can move people in unpredictable and potentially tragic ways. But it is virtually impossible to know were to draw a line on speech if you hope to achieve a certainty that any speech will not affect unbalanced minds.
To me a more important problem related to the Tucson attack has drawn far less attention than it merits--perhaps after so many similar incidents we have simply grown inured to the problem or weary of the fight. But firearms remain far too easy to acquire in American daily life and mental health services remain too weak and their institution too haphazard. There will be inflammatory rhetoric on the right and left in the United States; there will also be any number of potential Travis Bickles out there who may be affected by such rhetoric ... or maybe not. Maybe they will commit violent acts for reasons, as it appears in this case, that will never make sense because it is their illness that is the agent of their behavior, not the individuals themselves. Jared Lee Loughner bought his weapon a little more than a month ago without apparent difficulty. Owing to his clearly troubled demeanor, however, it did take two trips to separate Walmarts before he was able to acquire bullets for his overloaded magazine. In a sensible society, you would make every effort to keep people with mental illness from acquiring handguns. Can we be satisfied that we approach this problem sensibly after this parade of carnage from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson?
Sad to say, it is a hardship to even raise the matter of improving controls on firearms sales in our culture, as self-evident as this event and a catalog of others make that need appear. Loughner has been broadcasting his mental illness for months, perhaps years before this awful attack. As a mentally ill person it was not his responsibility to find and map out his own treatment plan, that was our job (I've no doubt that has family was put through a ringer trying to get help for their son; that's an old story). We failed. As a mentally ill person he should never have been allowed to get his hands on a gun. We failed again. What happened in Tucson on Saturday was horrible and tragic and ghastly, but no one should be truly shocked. Spectacles like Tucson are the inevitable, occasional horror that we appear willing to tolerate in American society in order to limit to the absolute minimum our spending on mental health services and extend to the maximum the intentions of the second amendment. Frankly, and I hate to write this, I'm surprised such tragedies don't happen more often.