That's really scary. That is the face of a man who was just arrested for trying to assassinate a United States Congressperson and for shooting indiscriminately into a crowd of people, young and old, injuring some while killing others. Gee, he looks quite self-satisfied.
Mentally ill people can do crazy things, and mentally ill people with guns can kill and maim people.
Many of us remember that terrible day almost thirty years ago when another unhinged person, John W. Hinkley Jr., fired into a crowd with idea of assassinating newly minted President Ronald Reagan. This was part of a hair-brained effort to impress actress Jodie Foster. Reagan, of course, wasn't assassinated, but was seriously injured by a ricocheting bullet. Three others were wounded, including Reagan's press secretary, James Brady. Brady survived a gunshot to the head, although largely disabled, and went on to found the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which lobbies for more responsible gun legislation.
Looking at statistics from Brady's website I was astonished to find that every day 300 people are "shot in murders, assaults, suicides, accidents, and police intervention." Also this: "Every day 85 people die from gun violence, 35 of them murdered." Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. According to this page from Just Facts: "Based on production data from firearm manufacturers, there are roughly 300 million firearms owned by civilians in the United States as of 2010. Of these, about 100 million are handguns." Friends, that's a lot of guns. Without doubt, Americans love their guns.
Now in fairness, all mentally ill individuals are not violent. Yet clearly many are or have a very real potential to be violent, if for no other reason than that their reasoning faculties are defective. Lots of sane or so-called "normal people" can become violent when they are unable to control their tempers. Others are reared from their youth in violent homes and streets, hardly knowing any other way of life. In this connection I have to wholeheartedly agree with the Brady Campaign slogan: "There are too many victims of gun violence because we make it too easy for dangerous people to get dangerous weapons in America."
Having said all that, I add that I'm very concerned about our national propensity to overreact to things. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, being a recent and classic example. Before the dust of those horrific attacks had even settled we united as a people on the proposition that something had to be done, someone had to pay. Before too long our national hysteria led us into invading a sovereign nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack against us. Our efforts to "prevent another 9/11" have led to an unreasonable erosion of our rights, and also to sometimes ridiculous spectacles, as exampled by the ever increasing and intrusive security measures in our airports.
I can understand the desire for greater security. But shouldn't it be balanced with a little common sense? Is it possible to live our lives totally free of risk?
In the wake of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' shooting there is already a tightening of security in the nation's Capital. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. There is a copycat phenomenon - again, a product of sick minds - that should be factored in. But there is a larger debate emerging about whether this should change the way our representatives interact with us. I think that is premature and extreme. Reasonable caution, certainly. But isolated representatives is unacceptable. Most appropriate were Rep. Emanuel Cleaver's words: "If we're going to be a representative government, and we are in the House of Representatives, we've got to put anything in the back of our minds that would prevent us from interacting with our constituents." After all, if the Giffords shooting was a lone-nut incident rather than a growing campaign to remove undesirable officials, we are in danger of overreacting here. Take this seriously, certainly. But don't go overboard.
Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania has been reported to be desirous of introducing legislation that would make it a federal crime to use symbols or language that are threatening or have the potential to incite violence against "a United States congressman or a federal official." Well intentioned, certainly. I'm not sure I understand why threats are to be deemed more troublesome when aimed at federal employees than the average John or Jane Doe, but as I've suggested, logic often gives way to hysteria.
Evidence is beginning to suggest that Jared Loughner had Congresswoman Giffords "in his crosshairs" since at least 2007, before Sarah Palin had become a national political phenomenon. While I agree with the usefulness of the debate over extreme rhetoric in politics, it hasn't been proved that Loughner was a Tea Party member or motivated by Sarah Palin or any other conservative's invective.
My approach to this type of thing was best illustrated by my former political blog, which I called Right-wing Dumbth. That is about what I think about a lot of the rhetoric coming from today's political conservatives: it is extreme illogic, or dumbth. It is silly, swaggering, tough-guy political posturing. Both parties are guilty of it (though conservatives do seem to manufacture more of it), and it is a reflection, I believe, of a country whose history was birthed by violent, bloody, gun-toting revolution. (What, should we purge that from our history books?) This tough rhetoric is really silly theatrics. Unwholesome and unhealthy, it can be argued. But are we really going to make such exaggeration a matter of federal legislation?
What if such legislation had been in effect in 1963 when another mentally unbalanced person shot a politician in the head? The Dallas Morning News ran a full page ad that featured a Wanted poster for our president. President Kennedy wasn't especially popular there and wanted to do some fence-mending with an eye on the 1964 election. Despite this, he was well received by the enthusiastic crowds that greeted him there. In fact, probably the last words President Kennedy heard were from Governor Connally's wife, Nellie, who said to him, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you." Not all of them of course. But the forces who placed the hatefully offensive ad didn't represent most people. My question is, would legislation such as Rep. Robert Brady is now proposing have made a difference? I'm certain Lee Oswald had his own agenda, totally separate from the group that placed the ad. Such legislation would not prevent such tragedies, anymore than laws prohibiting murders prevent murders from taking place.
Now nothing I am saying here should be construed as a defense for crazy talk. But in a free society, the market place of ideas is going to be filled with some very odious, even dangerous ideas. The weapon I choose to use against bad ideas is reason, head-thinking over gut-thinking. What is it, after all, that separates Homo Sapiens from the other animals? Passing laws will do little to change human nature. We can't simply refuse to listen to bad ideas and bad ideology. They won't just go away. Better to examine them and expose them and hopefully outgrow them.