If we took the title of this short essay seriously, we’d stop right here. You can’t make sense of the act of a madman. Whatever political influences may have been at work —if any—in the shooter’s warped mind, the compulsions that sent him to his rendezvous with infamy last Saturday were undeniably psychotic.
Americans are familiar with such tragedies, unfortunately. There have been dozens of assassinations and mass shootings since the 1960s. For whatever it is worth, we try to draw lessons from these sad, sick events.
The Tucson massacre turned into a political Rorschach test. At the least, it revealed that a concern about inflamed rhetoric was on a lot of minds. Very quickly, people jumped to inaccurate conclusions about motives, and this initiated yet another vicious round of finger-pointing between the polarized left and right.
Two lessons are apparent here. First, since we’re unlikely to pass gun control, we might try a little tongue control. Facts first, judgments later, lest an Alice in Wonderland standard becomes the norm.
Second, even if heated political debate had little or nothing to do with this terrible incident, a lowering of voices all around would be a silver lining to a very dark cloud, as well as a fitting tribute to the victims.
Other good things can come out of this, if we want.
- There can’t be enough public and private investment into the causes and treatment of severe mental illness. Most of us of a certain age have encountered it in our families, our workplaces, and our classrooms. I have personally watched it destroy some students’ lives, and leave families helpless and devastated.
- Without limiting the Second Amendment rights that millions of Americans cherish, there surely are more effective ways to keep guns out of the hands of people like the Tucson shooter. No sensible person wants deranged individuals to have access to weapons. This goal ought to unite liberals and conservatives.
- Gabe Zimmerman, the young House staffer who lost his life serving his member of Congress, is typical of the hundreds of dedicated Capitol Hill aides (including many former students) I’ve known over the decades. They work long hours for low pay under great stress because they believe in what they are doing. They deserve respect and appreciation. Think of Mr. Zimmerman when you deal with anyone in a congressional office.
- We have always had a love-hate relationship with our representatives and senators, and in my view, the love has diminished and the hate has grown in recent years. We expect a lot from them, and we should. But let Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remind us that they are flesh-and-blood human beings, with a right to our respect even when we disagree with their votes or politics. The bad apples in high office get all the media attention. Most legislators are trying to do the right thing, as they see it, and they are genuinely interested in their constituents’ welfare and views. Sure, they want to be reelected and hailed for their actions, but as James Madison once wrote, “Let men seek applause.” It’s one of the best, or least harmful, motives in a democracy.
Finally, we the people need to support our public officials and their staffs as they seek to take every reasonable precaution to protect their safety. They will still be accessible—it’s the job of a representative—but we must remember they have families and a natural human desire to live to a ripe old age. It is hard enough to get good people to run for office as it is. Let’s not have an expectation that they must endanger themselves unnecessarily while serving.