Related points that aren’t mutually exclusive

RELATED POINTS THAT AREN’T MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE…. We don’t know with any certainty what precipitated yesterday’s massacre in Tucson, and given the apparent mental instability of he suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, it’s possible we may never fully understand why this shooting happened.

But as those of us following the developments pause to catch our breaths, it seems there are two main, big-picture observations that are being bandied about. The first is that this is an excellent time for political pugilists to appreciate the power of language, and come away from this tragedy exercising better judgment. There’s a level of toxicity in our discourse just isn’t healthy, and it tears at the societal fabric that holds the country together.

The second is that Loughner, by all accounts, is clinically ill, and what might set off an armed mad man is necessarily unpredictable. To this extent, the political/rhetorical environment isn’t to blame for yesterday’s events; the sickness of a disturbed young man is.

I’m inclined to think the two points aren’t mutually exclusive.

There are obviously critically important unanswered questions, most notably the role of a possible accomplice. If, for example, Loughner has been pushed into a violent rage or enticed into violence, it’s an important part of understanding the motivations that led to yesterday’s events.

While those details remain unclear, we can still say with some confidence that both of the broader observations can be true at the same time. The first point is that too much of the rhetoric from prominent political figures — including that of candidates for public office and elected officials — has pushed the envelope to the breaking point. The remarks have been common enough that the examples come to mind easily — “reload”; “armed and dangerous”; “Second Amendment remedies.” We shake our heads in disgust, but it doesn’t stop the language from metastasizing like a cancer.

George Packer noted this morning:

This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk.

If I’m being intellectually honest, I’ll concede that early on yesterday, part of me assumed the worst. It seemed plausible to me that a Tea Party-type snapped after being fed a little too much hate, and targeted Gabrielle Giffords for assassination. From what we know about Loughner, those initial assumptions now appear to be groundless, and that comes as a relief. I wanted those emotional, gut-level reactions to be wrong, and the available evidence suggests that they were.

Which leads us to the second point. The shooter may have been politically motivated, in the sense that the assailant targeted a political figure, but Giffords probably wasn’t shot because her attacker disapproved of the individual mandate in the new health care law. Loughner appears to be “conservative” only in a loose sense — he hates abortion rights, is paranoid about government power, and obsesses over states’ rights — but given his madness, he doesn’t necessarily fall along the traditional left-right spectrum. The truly crazy rarely do.

But my fear is the latter observation will somehow mitigate the former. We may come to a point fairly soon at which the investigation of yesterday’s massacre is complete, and we learn that the shooting was “just” the result of psychotic madman. “Oh,” some might say, “then the political climate is irrelevant; violent rhetoric in the mainstream is inconsequential; and everything’s fine.”

No matter what the outcome of the Tucson investigation, everything isn’t fine.