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110109 The Loss of American Innocence

The Loss of American Innocence



One need not have ever heard of Gabrielle Giffords before yesterday’s attack to appreciate how horrible this episode is. Members of Congress, especially the rank-and-file ones, live remarkably nondescript lives, generally traveling alone or with staff and almost never with security. Back when I was interning on the Hill, it was not at all uncommon to pass a senator or representative in the hallway or on the sidewalk. Without already knowing their faces, one would pass by them and not notice. Members just do not live in fear.


This speaks to the incredible peacefulness of American politics and the great expectation that heated rhetoric will not lead to violence. Even when partisan control of the Senate was balanced by just one vote in 2001-2003 and 2007-2009, not a single American used a gun to alter that dynamic. Not even a missed shot was fired.


This peace is a historical one too. In the last one hundred years, all of my reading and sources show that only three members have actually been assassinated, and each attack is famous, in part because of their sheer rarity: Louisiana Sen. Huey Long’s 1935 murder inspired the book and movie All the King's Men; New York Sen. Bobby Kennedy’s death during his 1968 presidential campaign is seared into the national consciousness; and Jim Jones’s execution of California Rep. Leo Ryan triggered the massive 1978 loss of life at Jonestown. (Some might also count the 1983 death of Georgia Rep. Larry McDonald, who was coincidentally a passenger on a civilian airplane that the Soviet Union shot down after purportedly thinking it was a spy plane.)


Such rare blips of horror stab deep into our national sense of innocence, and yesterday was no exception. Any violence at a town hall meeting is in and of itself disturbing, but the massacre of four constituents, a staff member, and a visiting federal judge along with the wounding of over a dozen more people is incompressible to most of us who attend such events. The very serious injuries to the Congresswoman herself only become less shocking when compared to the other carnage.


What the implications of this will be for national dialogue is unclear, but it may be significant. Perhaps this will lift the pettiness of Congress a bit. Perhaps Giffords’s colleagues will question why they spent floor time just the day before in a big partisan fight over the credentialing of two members who had been standing in an incorrect room of the Capitol when sworn in on Wednesday. Perhaps they will start working on actual issues.


Of course, unfortunately, the question of implications will now start to relate to the killer’s motives. We are in that rather unique moment that lies between a tragedy and an understanding of why it happened. As I have thought and sometimes held back tears yesterday and today, I keep asking myself this question: what if Jared Lee Loughner had been acting for a group or belief that I supported? His motives could have been almost anything. Giffords is a Democrat but also a rather moderate one who just three days before had taken the very rare step of voting against her own party’s nominee for House speaker. His anger could come from either the left or the right. Maybe, instead, he is a single-issue person, and just one vote of hers was worth slaughtering her constituents. (Guessing which one is almost impossible given that she has cast at least hundreds.) Maybe he or a relative lost a job for which he blames her, or he knows someone whom he feels unjustly was denied a social security claim or other benefit. Maybe aliens told him to do it, or maybe he thinks that she is an alien. Maybe he just wants to be famous, or this was a horribly-planned suicide-by-cop attempt.


Ultimately, now is the time for everyone to recognize that motive does not really matter much, and we ought not to grant Loughner the honor of us declaring his motive (whatever it ends up being) bad as if, somehow, his views are now a standard of right and wrong. Have some crossed the line in recent years with inflammatory rhetoric? Yes, many have, and many have done so for causes I support. Others for causes I oppose. After awhile, it all just blurs together into a shrill noise. From amidst this noise came Loughner, and if his otherwise forgettable face is to be remembered, it may be for this: that his vile shrieking was so shocking that it caused everyone else to pause theirs and, for one moment of welcomed silence, reflect.