It seems, and possibly is, idle to ferret for ironies in the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: it is a ghastly tragedy that has left six people dead, 14 injured, hundreds bereaved. But it is astonishing how quickly the media, blogosphere and social networks have fixed on the idea that the victims of this crime are victims, at barely one remove, of inflammatory political rhetoric.
The line is that the attempt on Giffords’ life was the inevitable consequence of the deranged partisan rancour which has become a feature of American discourse, perhaps best exemplified by the absurd beliefs widely propounded about the citizenship and religious leanings of President Barack Obama. The primary exhibit for this view of the Giffords shooting is a map of the US, published last year on the Facebook page of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The map listed the seats of 20 Democratic politicians that Palin wished to see unhorsed in the 2010 midterms, and placed above their districts a graphic resembling a crosshair. Congresswoman Giffords’ constituency was one such.
It requires truly transcendent obtuseness to perceive anything genuinely sinister in this: party politics in all democracies is routinely conducted in the terminology of combat (Obama himself, in 2008, taunted his Republican opponents by paraphrasing “The Untouchables”, saying “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”) It is possible – indeed, sensible – to harbour many doubts about Sarah Palin, but to hold her accountable for the attack on Congresswoman Giffords is to commit the same elementary moral error as believing that alternative rock pantomime-dame Marilyn Manson was in some way culpable for the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. It currently seems to have escaped everyone’s memory that this opinion was touted at the time by the approximate political kin of Sarah Palin, and just as widely derided by those who would have tended to vote for Gabrielle Giffords.
Sometimes, there isn’t a side to pick. Sometimes, indisputably major news events mean very little beyond themselves – in recent memory, the death of Princess Diana is the most resonant example. The plain and inescapable facts of this case are that the population of the United States is a squeak over 307 million, among whom, according to most estimates, circulate somewhere north of 200 million guns. It is statistically inevitable that, from time to time, one of those 200 million weapons will be picked up by one of those 307 million people whose psychological wiring has come somewhat loose. Sometimes, crazy people do crazy things.
In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, there were 12,632 firearm homicides in the United States. The self-righteous energy unleashed by these six deaths in Tucson might be better directed to serious thinking about how the grand total could be lowered.