The shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords- a dreadful, vicious act, but one that was tinged with a chill sense of foreshadowing. One column in the NYT outlined this precise feeling, that it was a disaster waiting to happen. The column touched upon the mean-spirited, incendiary and hate-based political rhetoric that is currently the norm in the US, but I think that there are also a couple of other factors at play.
One is certainly the gross neglect that many mentally ill patients suffer, both from the medical establishment and from society at large. The shooter in the Arizona case is said to be schizophrenic- he was expelled from college for profound anti-social behavior, and in his online profiles he ranted incoherently about government mind-control. Mental illness is often the least-discussed of illnesses, vastly under-diagnosed and poorly understood.
Then, there is the all-too-obvious issue of astoundingly easy access to guns. Agreed, that Americans are proud of their Second Amendment- ‘the right to bear arms’. While that may be fundamental to their identity as a society, I also would like to hear educated views about how much the world has changed since the days in which this tenet was framed. For today’s society as much as for those days- if there are no checks in place to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill, disaster lurks within a large number of those sales.
Also there is the undeniable tone of violence and bullying that marks much of the political discourse in that country. (Palin actually had a map of Giffords’ constituency marked with a cross-hairs on her Web site). Fed with a contant stream of hate and thinly-veiled exhortations to violence, armed with a legally purchased gun, it is no big shock that a young mentally disturbed male takes this horrendous step. While it is not known exactly why he targeted Ms. Giffords, the motivation is certainly political, and certainly anti-Democratic. Not to say that this tragic confluence of factors would have inevitably led to this same conclusion, but in this case, it did. (And he injured a good many others and killed six, including a 9-year-old girl.)
All this makes me wonder why the US seems to thrive on a culture of fear. No other developed country has quite such a record of homicides and public shootings, nor such ease of legally purchasing weapons. Needless to say, no other country has such an astonishingly long list of nations with which it has been or is, at war. This throbbing vein of fear seems to be at the heart of what is happening there today, the Arizona shooting being just a tragic and visible symbol of this fear.