Globe Editorial

A crazed loner, an old story, and a harsh political climate

January 10, 2011

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IF INVESTIGATORS are correct, a young Arizonan named Jared Lee Loughner is the latest in a rogue’s gallery of misfits, mental cases, and crazed zealots to turn gunman. That fact alone suggests that the usual questions — about why he never got treatment for his mental problems and how he had access to guns — are still good ones. And yet the shooting spree, for which Loughner is the main suspect, was aimed at a congresswoman in a state wrestling with political extremism, and occurred in a country where many people, including the intended victim, fretted about how dangerously the rhetoric of violence has entered mainstream discussion.

Loughner’s Internet postings suggest that he was hunting for scapegoats — and seeking panaceas — on the fringes of the political spectrum, from the “Communist Manifesto’’ to “Mein Kampf.’’ Here and there he touched on conspiracy theories of the moment, including rants about currency and endorsement of the gold standard. The breadth of his political furies serves as a useful reminder that there is no single repository of extremism, and that faltering minds will journey into the far reaches of the political universe to feed their cracked fantasies.

And yet that doesn’t fully explain why such minds turn violent, and how they choose their targets. The blunt assessment of Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Arizona’s Pima County, carries a ring of a truth. “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government — the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,’’ said Dupnik, noting that Arizona, roiled by the illegal immigration debate, has “become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.’’

This may be true about Arizona, but the shootings could have happened almost anywhere in the United States, given how thoroughly both “lock and load’’-style gun metaphors and the demonization of opponents have saturated the nation’s politics. Even modest differences of opinion are now cast in furious ideological terms. This branding of people and ideas seeks to penetrate casual discourse and shape the impressions of otherwise distracted voters. But because it is so deliberate, this form of branding can also be deliberately avoided. And it must be.

Some innocent colloquialisms about “shooting down’’ proposals or “targeting’’ candidates will slip by. But the red-meat rhetoric — the declarations of revolution, the casual depictions of people as unpatriotic, the brandishing of guns as a symbol of political resistance — should be renounced across the political spectrum.

No political leader or movement should be held responsible for crimes that appear to be Loughner’s alone, and all Americans would benefit from a culture less conducive to the fantasies of unstable minds. Liberals are justified in expressing alarm over the coarsening of the political dialogue. But those who have rushed to blame conservative causes or leaders for the killings should pause and consider whether they, too, are waving a bloody shirt and feeding a culture of denunciation.

The responsibility for maintaining a civil dialogue starts in every home and with every individual.