There is little question that political discourse in the United States in the early 21st century will never be confused with the Lincoln-Douglas debate. Political combatants take an unseemly delight in characterizing opponents as enemies of the state, and reasonably decent public servants can expect to be labeled as pinheads and traitors, puppets of capital and apologists for terrorism. This has been going on for some time; indeed, historians will note that no election in recent memory surpasses in pure vitriol the presidential campaign of 1800, when supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson tore each other apart in ways that would make even today’s cable television hosts cringe.
From what we know about the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, who attempted to kill Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona over the weekend (and did kill six other people), it is hard to know if politics played a role in his rampage. His reading list included Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto. It would take some effort to find a clear ideological narrative common to those two works. Those who insist that the suspect was influenced by Sarah Palin, or, for that matter, Karl Marx, thus far have provided only assertions, not arguments.
But here is what we know for sure about Loughner: He frightened his college classmates. He was suspended from school because of antisocial behavior. He posted disturbing messages and videos online. A professor kept an eye on him in class, fearing that he might be armed.
He certainly was dangerous. And yet in the gun-loving state of Arizona, this troubled young man was able to walk into a store and purchase a semi-automatic weapon with no questions asked. There were no background checks required, no waiting period. He wanted a weapon designed to kill people as quickly as possible, and he got it.
In the days and weeks to come, investigators may yet find a political motive or evidence of some ideological narrative to explain Loughner’s assault. It surely bears notice that the suspect specifically targeted a U.S. representative who happened to be an Arizona Democrat and a Jewish woman. These may not be insignificant facts.
But the more fundamental issue-the availability of guns to anybody who has the money to pay for one-may not even come up for debate, at least not outside the restrictive states of the Northeast. A large portion of America treasures its supposed right to stockpile personal arsenals that have nothing to do with sport hunting and everything to do with murderous intent.
Until gun availability merits the sort of vigorous debate associated with health care, the tragedy in Tucson will be repeated over and over again.