Thoughts, a Few Days Removed from a Tragedy

I want someone to blame.

The police have given me Jared Loughner. Not just a someone, but a 22-year-old malcontent. Confused and alienated with a disturbing history, he’s not the quiet, silent type living next door—the kind whose neighbors are always shocked when they learn of the dark history behind the polite face. No, Loughner is the real deal: a dyed-in-the-wool psycho that terrifies everyone he knows.

After reading the texts of his YouTube videos, the image of his mug-shot in my mind—the bald head, the smile, the taunting eyes—it’s impossible to imagine Loughner not snapping, not eventually walking with menace into a crowd as his did on Saturday. Just a matter of time.

Looking at that mug-shot, I can’t help but wonder if he planned to save one last bullet for himself. That seems to be the modus operandi of such assailants. One bullet for you, one bullet for me, and it’s all over save for the news copy.

Instead, he’s in prison. We have him to blame. No doubt, in coming days we’ll find more people to blame. What of his parents? Where did they go wrong? And what about all those people he made so nervous? How could there have been so many warning signs and yet no one acted to prevent it?

Of course, it didn’t take long for critics to blame Sarah Palin, FOX News and the caustic tenor of debate. So, liberals have plenty of people to blame. And I need only look at my brother’s reaction to the tragedy to see how this will play out in conservative narratives.

“Friggin’ Obama had to read his speech off a teleprompter,” he barked from the couch while watching the evening news at my father’s house. “Say what you will, but George Bush would have at least made it sound more sincere.”

My brother—along with the millions of others who, in lieu of forming opinions, are content to have them delivered directly via cable networks and talk radio—made up his mind about who was responsible for the shooting back in January of 2009. “Friggin’ Obama” is what he takes away from the mass murder. Friggin’ Obama.

Yet somehow, I still believe in democracy.

A moment later, the news announced that Loughner’s favorite books were Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and “The Communist Manifesto.” To this, my brother concluded in his A.M.-band wisdom: “Figures, bunch of communist crap.”

“Hitler wasn’t a communist,” I said, but I don’t know why. My brother doesn’t know what communism is. He could probably quote a few Twitter-sized clichés, but only because he’s heard them dozens, if not hundreds of times. I thought about asking him why a communist would target a liberal politician, but I didn’t. He doesn’t really know what a liberal is, just that in the land of talk radio which he spends 40 hours a week drowned in while at work, a liberal is evil.

You can’t discuss politics with a human telegraph machine. You can blame a human telegraph machine, though, and as I’ve mentioned I want someone to blame. And holding Loughner solely responsible isn’t enough.

For Loughner is the perfect prism, what with his cryptic syllogisms, the sophomoric Nietzschean nihilism, the mistrust of all authority, of reality itself. For a nation as divided socially and politically as America, Loughner’s the perfect zeitgeist for blame. A communist, a tea-bagger, an anti-government constitutionalist versed in the liberal arts. He’s a universal assassin.

Was he driven to violence by the growing anti-government sentiments on the right, or was it book learning that did him in? Was he influenced by Sarah Palin, or his literature instructor? Is he a leftist extremist or a right-wing nut job?

Who cares? I want someone to blame. I want a conspiracy to believe in. A Republican plot to further neuter Democrats? A tea-bagger’s uprising, the first shot in Palin’s revolution against her own closing window of relevance? It would be nice, too, if I could blame Russell Pearce, whose assault on the Constitution has elevated him from local obscurity to national notoriety.

But I know better. Terror is a faceless enemy. It can be anyone, anything, and in the minds of the injured terror often takes the form of the things we, ourselves, would like to see terrorized. One need only revisit 9/11 to understand this. In the years since 2001, the face of the enemy has been everything from Saddam Hussein, to Americans who didn’t support the president, to Bill Clinton, to Neo-Cons, to gays and lesbians who, according to some members of the Evangelical right, brought God’s wraith down upon America.

But the reality is: Loughner is insane. And whether he was inspired by Palin or Karl Marx is irrelevant. Sadly, history is full of people who were little more than walking gas cans. Any spark, no matter where from, could set them off.

Just a matter of time.

Sadly, this gas can went off on Gabby Giffords, her aides, and people who came out to see Gabby, to shop. To do whatever nine-year-olds do when not caught in the crossfire. A nightmare. And now, sage minds are stressing the need for us to cooperate and work together. To tone down the rhetoric.

And I couldn’t agree less.

In the last decade, America experienced a revolution of sorts. A subtle revolution, quiet, and the story of its battles got lost underneath larger headlines of terrorism, war, and economic collapse. Still, during the last 10 years, I watched as gays and lesbians were publically shoved back into the closet. I watched religious intolerance grow into a virtue so celebrated, well-meaning phrases like “happy holidays” are received with the same disdain racial epitaphs are. I watched as the middle class was eradicated while our nation’s wealth was funneled indiscreetly and with complete abandon to a new corporate aristocracy—an aristocracy that uses its wealth and power to leverage every piece of legislation Congress passes.

I watched as our education system was gutted (a process begun long before the economic crisis, but one the GOP sped up after the 2008 collapse). And I watched as all our problems were posited upon an entire ethnicity in political discussions (the Hispanics) and an entire faith in religious ones (the Muslim faith).

I watched as a radio host recruited people to attend a presidential rally with guns strapped to their backs. I watched as a moderate health care reform bill—modeled after legislation drafted by Republicans in 1993—was branded as socialism in the press. I watched as Glenn Beck married the outraged bravado of a Rush Limbaugh with the melodramatic theatrics of a tele-evangelist and turned a cable news network into a nightly, digital passion play adored by millions. And I watched as FOX News manufactured its own political movement, one that dramatically altered the 2010 elections.

In short, I watched as the right-wing hate machine spent a decade equating liberalism to terrorism and liberals to enemies of the state. That rhetoric changed the consciousness of this country, and now that that rhetoric is baring its violent fruit, I’m the one who’s supposed to be civil?

I don’t think so.

I was civil and said little. Mostly, I minded my business, tried to better my life (and, when I was married, her life). I watched and said little. I was civil.

This Saturday, shots were fired. People died. One of them was nine. I watched on TV.

Now I want someone to blame. There is Loughner. And yes, there are the Palins and Becks, who, even today, gain more by demonizing their opposition than by cooperating with them.

But tonight, I’m finding blame with myself. Because I watched. Because I was civil. And the consequence of my civility? My nation changed. Political differences became sharply drawn lines in the sand. Skin color became, once again, a scarlet letter. Our constitutional rights became negotiable, depending on circumstances and orientation. And a college student became a mass murderer.

I blame myself. I’m done watching.

And I’m done being civil.

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