Americans are proud of their nation’s long history of peacefully handing over the reins of government from one party to another. In the world’s oldest democracy, political change occurs at the ballot box, not at gunpoint.

Yet the United States also has a long history of political violence. The native population of this land was all but exterminated. Americans killed more than 600,000 of their fellow countrymen in the Civil War, a struggle that came close to dissolving the union and culminated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the most iconic incident of political violence in the nation’s history. Those who came of age in the 1960s were buffeted, if not traumatized, by a series of assassinations. First there was the killing of President John F. Kennedy, whose assassin was shot dead while in police custody by a man whose motives seemed as opaque as those of his victim. Before the decade was out, Sen. Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were gunned down. In 1970, Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, was shot and paralyzed in yet another seemingly random act. A younger generation remembers the assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone as well as the life-threatening injuries sustained by President Ronald Reagan, who was shot by a mentally ill young man in Washington, D.C.

These seemingly unaccountable acts of violence by fugitive and often psychotic individuals fit an all-too-familiar pattern, as evidently does the attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. At the time of this writing, Giffords remains in critical condition. The gunman shot twenty people, killing six, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, a Democrat like Giffords, denounced the “vitriolic” political rhetoric and atmosphere in Arizona and across the nation, suggesting that it had influenced the actions of certain “unbalanced” individuals.

After a close race in a largely Republican district bitterly divided on immigration issues and the new health-care law, Rep. Giffords was recently elected to a third term. Like many members of Congress, she had received violent threats. After she voted for the health-care bill her office in Tucson was vandalized, and in 2009 a man was removed from one of her public appearances after the gun he was carrying fell out of its holster, hitting the floor. During the midterm elections, Giffords was one of twenty Democrats in the House to be “targeted” for defeat on Sarah Palin’s Web site, using the image of a gun’s cross hairs. Giffords publicly complained about the use of such noxious imagery, noting that “When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.”

At this time, however, there is no evidence to suggest that the accused killer, a twenty-two-year-old college dropout named Jared Lee Loughner, was driven to these heinous acts by any coherent political ideology. His recent history of aberrant and threatening behavior as a student, as well as a series of bizarre videos he posted on the Internet, suggest that Loughner is a seriously disturbed young man whose motives, like the motives of so many killers who have stalked political figures or committed mass shootings, will probably never be understood.

The word “tragedy” has been used by many to describe these horrific events. Such senseless killing is, of course, tragic in the sense of being dreadful. Yet there is another dimension to such evil that the notion of tragedy does not quite capture. The Scripture readings for the feast of the baptism of Christ the day after the shootings touched on this conundrum. From Isaiah we heard of the Lord’s demand for justice, and of his desire “to open the eyes of the blind, / to bring out prisoners from confinement, / and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” It seems clear that the perpetrator of the Tucson killings is a man blinded by hate, someone confined to a shape-shifting world of malevolent fantasy. In the second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter speaks of “all those oppressed by the devil.” It is easy to scoff at such language as we go about our everyday business, yet in the aftermath of incomprehensible violence like the rampage in Tucson, we should resist that temptation. In a lecture titled “The Devil in History,” the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski reminded his largely secular audience that evil is “not contingent…but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.” Sometimes religious language offers a more accurate description of reality than psychological or political analysis. Or as Kolakowski insisted, “The devil is part of our experience.” America has never been exempt from that experience.

Related: Tragic Prophet, by E. J. Dionne Jr.
Killings in Tucson, by the Editors
Forward Motion, by Joseph D. Becker

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Published in the 2011-01-28 issue: View Contents
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