“I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” (Patrick Henry)
We often get a glimpse of the future when we’re reminded of a situation we’ve been living with for some time. One of those situations is large numbers of mentally disturbed people wandering around in public. This was unknown in the 1940s and ‘50s, when I grew up. We used to care for such people in institutions, where they couldn’t hurt themselves or anyone else. They were looked after, fed and medicated in hospitals for the mentally ill.
That was then. But the times have changed. Compassionate commitment of insane and emotionally injured people was curtailed in the 1960s and ‘70s. Progressive activists enacted policies to release thousands of such people from institutions so they could live “independently” in society. First Lady Rosalynn Carter was a highly visible champion of this reformed concept of “compassion.” Her efforts helped produce throngs of “homeless” people who now haunt parks, parking garages, and subway stations in every city and town in the country. They live there, wild, with no fixed address. No one knows how many there are.
During Republican administrations, homeless people become hot political properties for Democrats, who tout them as evidence of “heartless” policies that cause poverty and suffering. During Democrat administrations, you don’t hear much about this, although the homeless-count doesn’t change.
The fact is that homeless people have little to do with poverty programs or any other aspect of national policy, except for the decision to let them roam wild, as mentioned above. Homeless people generally resist all attempts to bring them into shelters for proper nourishment and medical care. They live on the streets because, basically, they like to live on the streets. This allows political opportunists to claim that their opponents’ policies are to blame. But sometimes this political gamesmanship goes off the rails.
Every so often a crazy person, who would have been institutionalized in an earlier time, commits a crime. Sometimes it’s a truly horrible crime, as happened in January 2011 when a crazed gunman named Jared Loughner opened fire without warning on a crowd attending a political gathering at a shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona. Armed with a large-clip semi-automatic pistol, Loughner killed six persons and wounded another score before bystanders subdued him and took his weapon away. One of the dead was U.S. District Judge John Roll; another was 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was seriously wounded by a bullet to the head. She eventually recovered to a degraded functionality, but her political career was ended. Her life will never be the same.
As a people, Americans have many strengths: generosity, courage, compassion, tolerance, persistence, and other fine qualities. But we have some weaknesses, too. One of these is a tendency to play “let’s pretend” when a situation doesn’t seem to affect us directly. We have done that with the issue of mentally unstable people wandering around. By pretending that it doesn’t really matter if deranged people are hanging out in our parks, accosting tourists, and defecating in the stairwells of parking garages, we invite an eventual calumny. Like a loose grenade rolling around, one of these nuts is bound to go off sooner or later. “Sooner” arrived that day in Tucson.
News media and politicians did much public hand-wringing over how such a thing could happen. But the warning signs were there all along. Scarcely a word was said about the “mainstreaming” of mentally disturbed people. We’re not learning anything here. I sometimes wonder if we can.
In the case of Jared Loughner1, the signs and portents abounded. His internet postings about government attempts to control us through “grammar” were beyond bizarre. His actions at the college he attended were reportedly so strange and so menacing that authorities finally expelled him. People around him knew he was nuts, yet there was no legal authority for placing him in some kind of institution where he could be treated and the public could be protected. This is the legacy of the permissive 1960s. Until we overthrow it, we shall continue to suffer from its destructive effects.
Unfortunately, another of our societal flaws is a need to fix blame when something untoward occurs. We’ve been like this since the Year One. (No doubt the Continental Congress held hearings to find out why the Revolution was dragging on so long.) We want every bad event to be someone’s fault, so the rest of us can skate without culpability. Maybe this is Human Nature. It’s certainly American Nature.
Politicians and political sympathizers in the Mainstream Media know about this facet of the nation’s character. Democrats and Democrat-leaning reporters eagerly blame Republicans, and especially Tea Party followers, for creating a “climate of violence” with their conservative political discourse on TV and talk-radio. This accusation arises in full force whenever some violent or potentially violent event occurs.
When a man attempted to set off a car-bomb in Times Square, media talking heads immediately suggested a probable Tea Party connection. When it developed that the would-be bomber was actually a Muslim – don’t you just hate that? – various TV personalities, including MSNBC host Contessa Brewer, were visibly bummed. They so wanted it to be an angry, white redneck tea-partier who had set the explosive, which had malfunctioned.
This pattern exploded (so to speak) in the aftermath of the Tucson shootout. When the news broke that Rep. Giffords had been wounded, reporters and pundits immediately stampeded after the suggestion that the shooter was probably motivated by political animus toward Democrats – probably egged on by talk radio, the Tea Party’s hostility toward Democratic policies, and other conservative talking-points. The chorus reached fortissimo level when liberal pundits, including Keith Olberman, began blaming Sarah Palin for directly inspiring the shooter – despite a lack of any evidence to support such a claim. One congressman called for a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine to control conservative speech.
As the week progressed, evidence began to emerge that the shooter, Loughner, was not political, was neither right-wing nor left-wing, hated broadcast news, and had never attended a Tea Party rally. Instead, he was exposed as a known nut-case. (See above.) He was entirely in his own world and had evidently lashed out at people who seemed to represent authority. Nevertheless, the smearing of Mrs. Palin, the Tea Party, and conservative talk-radio marched on, undeterred by any facts.
In the midst of all that, President Obama turned a “memorial service” for the victims into a political pep-rally for…who else? Himself! The service was held at the University of Arizona basketball arena, with overflow at the football stadium. Insiders revealed that the service was delayed until special T-shirts could be prepared for distribution to the attendees.
The T-shirts, plus a great crowd of cheering students gave the event the feel of a sporting event instead of a solemn occasion to mourn innocent people struck down by senseless violence. Mr. Obama was at his oratorical best, using the event to promote his administration, his policies, and himself. One writer pointed out that the event was meant to showcase Mr. Obama’s particular vision for “civility” in political discourse, although politics had nothing to do with the shooting.
Media-and political-reactions to the Tucson violence pointed to the future for our country. It’s a depressing prospect, but it doesn’t have to be that way if people stop accepting the premise that one political side is “causing” violence, when there’s no evidence to support that notion. Today the focus has shifted to Mr. Trump as the “cause” of all violent events. Same game, new punching bags.
My political memory goes back a long way – to 1950, when two Puerto Rican nationalists broke into the grounds of the Blair House, where President Truman was residing because of remodeling at the White House. While attempting to reach Mr. Truman, one assassin was slain and the other wounded. In a wild gun-battle on the grounds of the mansion, three Secret Service agents were also wounded and a capitol policeman was killed. A friend of mine, on coffee-break with colleagues at a drug store across the street from Blair House, said they thought the shootout was a movie-scene being filmed.
In the aftermath of that assassination attempt, no accusations were made by media or Democrats or Republicans, charging that the policies or political discourse of one political side or the other had “caused” the violence. We didn’t do such things then, and there is no reason why we can’t go back to that same “civility.” We’ll remain in the present sorry state only so long as reasonable people let unprincipled politicians, pundits and news-readers make scurrilous, unsupported charges. It really must stop. Let’s cut it out. Instead, let’s concentrate on putting the nuts back in the nuthouse, and the crooks in the slammer, where they belong.
 In Federal District Court on November 8, 2012, Jared Loughner was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He is currently serving his sentence in Federal Prison at Tucson, Arizona.