Here in Greenville, the top news story is the major snowstorm bearing down on the area. Meteorologists are predicting the kind of snowstorm that the we experience once every few decades and are already making comparisons to the great Blizzard of 1988 (a storm that is burned into my memory). And it would take a storm that big to eclipse Saturday’s assassination attempt of Gabrielle Giffords in the news cycle. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I am a proud liberal and almost always vote Democratic. This story has evoked a lot of emotion from people on both sides of the political spectrum, and I too have strong opinions on this matter. What I hope to offer, briefly, are my thoughts on this assassination attempt and its implications.
Within minutes of NPR breaking the story, the left broke into a fury. Long outraged over the right’s use of revolutionary rhetoric, many leapt to say “I told you so.” We all remember Sharon Angle’s assertion that if the left continued to get its way that conservatives might be forced to take “Second Amendment remedies.” Moreover, Sarah Palin’s campaign map that targeted congressional districts (with a cross hair, no less) that needed to be won for the Republican Party upset liberals and many wondered if the rhetoric had simply gone too far. I was among the liberals that was concerned about the use of violent language in 2010 election.
Currently, we do not know what inspired Jared Lee Loughner to murder. While we do know that he seems to be politically motivated, the real question to me is what is Loughner’s reality. There is no question that Loughner is mentally ill, and my guess is schizophrenia – a very serious disease. If he comes out and says himself that he was influenced by the toxic political environment, then I will line up with my fellow liberals in attacking conservatives for their campaign. But my guess is that he was more influenced by the voices in his head than by anything that jaybird Sharon Angle said.
There is no one person to blame for this tragedy. While I believe Loughner must be held accountable for his crimes, his actions were not his failure. He has a biological brain disease that was either left untreated or poorly treated. In my opinion, the crimes of the mentally ill are societal failures. Failure of society to understand, or even care about, the mentally ill. The mentally ill can’t care about themselves in a meaningful way because their reality is not ours. I could write for hours about the kinds of reforms we need in our healthcare system – that includes mental health. But briefly, I will say that I earnestly hope that the Giffords tragedy will highlight the fact that mental illness is everybody’s business. Society cannot turn a blind eye to this issue any longer. Effective, affordable, and accessible care are a must. Long-term care facilities are desperately needed in every state. While mental hospitals are stigmatized, the care must be effective and humane. There is a lot to be said for medication and therapy. Some patients need to be committed longterm against their will because they might stop taking their medicine and start shooting if left on their own. As it stands now, the criminal justice system is playing too large of a role in the mental health of Americans. This is reactive, not proactive, use of taxpayer money. Maybe this will be a wake up call to the nation that it’s time to do something effective and humanely about the mental health crisis in the United States. Budget deficits, tax cuts, and Tea Parties be damned. The time to act is now.
Finally, I will say that I hope that this will tone down the political rhetoric in the next election. While there was no direct cause and effect relationship between the 2010 midterms and Jared Loughner’s mental health, maybe this tragedy will make politicians think twice before using language with violent implications. I don’t mean to cast dispersions on conservatives; liberals said some pretty stupid and hateful things during the Bush Administration. The toxic political environment is bad for the country and this tragedy might make it worse, or make it better. People are very divided right now on politics, and maybe our national grief over this awful event might remind people of our mutual patriotism and shared humanity.