Roving thoughts and provocations

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American Tragedy

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
The US flag flies at half-staff outside the US Supreme Court, January 9, 2011, in memory of the victims of the January 8 shootings in Tucson, Arizona

Murderous rampages of the sort that occurred Saturday outside a grocery store here in Tucson may retain some power to shock—twenty people shot down right up the road from where I write—but for me, at least, they have lost all power to surprise. Arizona is after all a state where it’s possible to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, and many do.

More people died outside that Safeway on a Saturday morning than died in the famous and endlessly re-enacted shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, also not very far down the road. The disturbed young shooter purchased his gun at a Sportsman’s Warehouse here in town: a Glock semi-automatic with an extended magazine, permitting him thirty-one bullets, twenty of which struck home. At one point, the shooter dropped a clip, otherwise the slaughter would likely have been even worse.

The law enforcement agencies are now fairly sure that the assailant, Jared Lee Loughner, acted alone. (An older man caught on security cameras turned out to be the unfortunate taxi driver who drove Loughner to the event.) But these massacres each have their quirks. One of Loughner’s was a gripe against our currency, railing because it was not based on gold and silver. He had some interest in formal logic, although a simple one:

All humans are in need of sleep.
Jared Loughner is human.
Hence, Jared Loughner is in need of sleep.

Chance recently landed me beside Gabrielle Giffords on a flight from Dallas. Congresswoman Giffords, the only Jewish Congresswoman from Arizona, was just back from Israel; she was lively, and full of sass. I found her very middle, in the best way. Instead of delving into her politics, we mainly talked movies. I judged her to be more or less populist, and later learned that she was a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.

Safeway, where she fell, is also very middle, a perfect venue for the “Congress on Your Corner” town hall–type meetings she liked to hold with constituents. We go to that Safeway often to secure the small necessities of life, detergents, for example.

A Federal judge, John M. Roll, showed up to greet the Congresswoman and complain about overcrowded courts: he was killed, as was nine-year-old Christina Green, a young girl who wanted to see real government in operation. Four others died, and fourteen more were wounded. Congresswoman Giffords, shot through the brain, will probably survive, although the extent of her recovery is a question yet to be answered.

Ours is a culture in which shooting sprees have become almost commonplace. Hearing that the site and surrounding area was entirely sealed off I elected to try to learn about it by watching television. The people who were trapped at site stood around in small clumps, subdued; no doubt they were feeling lucky not to be on stretchers or in ambulances. Probably they were oppressed by the randomness of it all: a deranged kid walks up and blasts twenty people. Hello. The novelist Theodore Dreiser would have known how to handle such a scene.

Learning about a nearby massacre from television requires much channel surfing. Many talking heads brooded about the part our violence-tinged language might be playing in the behavior of our youth. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, elected eight times, spoke with considerable dignity, mentioning that in his view, there had been excessive language used in Arizona, both on radio and television. It may be free speech, he said, but it has consequences. Sheriff Dupnik went on to say that he feared Arizona had become “… a Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” For this, he was roundly criticized, although I don’t see that he was off the mark. Ask the Indians.

Several references were made to an ad placed by Sarah Palin’s political action committee, in which crosshairs targeted, among others, Congresswoman Giffords’s district. (Sarah Palin has sent Congresswoman Giffords a letter of sympathy, and the crosshairs have now been removed.) Elsewhere among commentators Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post was good as always, pointing out:

The Second Amendment is a fact of life. But even recent Supreme Court rulings have left the door open to effective gun control measures. We must recognize the obvious distinction between rifles, shotguns and target pistols used for sport on the one hand, and semiautomatic handguns designed for killing people on the other. We must decide that allowing anyone to carry a concealed weapon, no questions asked, is just crazy. And for heaven’s sake, we must demand that laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics be enforced.

And it was reassuring to see that young Luke Russert, reporting on the scene as a correspondent for NBC, has the journalistic poise inherited from both his parents.

Meanwhile, the dead are dead, the wounded are wounded, and except for twenty families, some of them now broken, the violent stream of American life goes on absolutely unchanged. Arizona and indeed America continue to be packed with guns. I own several myself (none of them semi-automatic) and I have no intention of disposing of them, although I don’t feel I should conceal them and walk down urban streets.

And I don’t believe that language drawn from the hunt is likely to vanish from our political speech. Words such as “target” or “bulls eye” are deeply ingrained. We will be polite for a while but once the slugfest resumes—and politics is a slugfest—the old invective will slip back in.

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