A nation aghast at the horror of last week’s events in a Tucson parking lot understandably wants answers, and a nervous Jewish community has some special reasons for concern. Why did alleged shooter Jared Loughner target a Jewish congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)? What role did anti-government conspiracies play in his actions, and was anti-Semitism a motive? How was this young man, so obviously disturbed and deluded, able to buy the Glock semiautomatic handgun with high capacity magazine that was able to wreak such horrific violence in a matter of seconds?
We need answers; what we don’t need is a rush to judgment based on scanty information and a lot of speculation. And we don’t need conclusions framed by assorted political and ideological agendas, which can only deepen the national mood of polarization and anger.
No, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin did not cause this tragedy, nor did a Tea Party movement that often demonizes the federal government. No, there isn’t evidence of sweeping anti-Semitic conspiracies here. Terrible as Saturday’s events were, they do not point to a tidal wave of political violence, which, thankfully, remains a rare occurrence in modern America.
That said, it’s hard to deny that a culture of rage and intolerance has gripped our nation and polluted our political discourse, or that it is promoted in so many cases by talk show hosts who — as Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said this week — recklessly exploit political incitement as a form of entertainment. In their worldview there is no loyal opposition, only supporters and mortal enemies; debate and compromise, cornerstones of democracy, are scorned and devalued; the most outrageous accusations and conspiracy theories are broadcast as fact.
The incitement of talk show hosts did not cause Saturday’s tragedy, but it contributes to a toxic environment in which the political extremists among us — and the truly unhinged — may be impelled to action.
The remedies are not primarily political. We need to hear much more from our communal and religious leaders about the need to dial down the rhetoric and refocus on ways to conduct our political debates with civility and respect. We need to engage the mental health community and legal experts in revisiting the notion of involuntary commitment of individuals deemed dangerous. We need to look into our own behavior — as individuals and as a community — and root out actions and attitudes that may add to this destructive din.
And we must revitalize our commitment to creating a more just society in an effort to alleviate the conditions in which political rage and irrational intolerance thrive.