In a rare moment of unity, our elected leaders in Congress stood together last month in respectful recognition of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s dignity and courage as she resigned. It was a hopeful sign of the enduring possibilities for friendship and humanity amid a toxic political culture. Now that more than a year has passed since the attack on Giffords in Tucson, Arizona—an attack that left six dead and injured fourteen others—perhaps we can begin to think more clearly about it.
Three days after the murderous rampage, syndicated columnist George Will wrote:
It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson’s occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds. The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience. Time was, the gods were useful. What is thunder? The gods are angry. Polytheism was explanatory. People postulated causations. And still do. Hence: The Tucson shooter was (pick your verb) provoked, triggered, unhinged by today’s (pick your noun) rhetoric, vitriol, extremism, “climate of hate.”
Most of us would agree that it is scary to accept that some things happen for no reason. Few mature adults are comfortable with “randomness and the inexplicable.”
On the other hand, it is also tempting to imagine that each of us makes choices in a vacuum that determine our path in life and that we have no responsibility for others’ actions or well-being. This is particularly convenient for anyone in a position of dominance.
To consider the possibility of our essential connectedness entails complexity. We might recognize large institutionalized systems that are difficult for individuals to comprehend or change. The diffuse cultural values that shape our choices in layered, contingent ways are even harder to grasp. This is especially true in the context of shocking human behavior, like we saw in Tucson. Will’s lament notwithstanding, I believe sociology has insight to offer about seemingly isolated events.
In 1897, Emile Durkheim wrote about just that capacity in his seminal work, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Through a careful review of the evidence from the bird’s eye view of sociology, he recognized that what appeared to be the inexplicable final act of a lonely and troubled soul was actually part of a pattern profoundly shaped by social forces—hence the significant differences in suicide rates across countries, religions, classes, genders, and family compositions. The variation is related to how attached an individual is to a moral community, a linkage always at risk in modern society. Well-integrated individuals understand they are expected to show up each day to make a contribution, and if they do, the group will reward them with ongoing support.
This is not to say sociology can explain individual suicides. Attempts to account for specific human actions via sociology are, by definition, “half-baked.” But the patterns are not random. Social context matters for suicide just as it does for homicide, crime, and morality in general—not in some simplistic, linear fashion but, as Durkheim demonstrated, through a sequence of consequential probabilities.
So, if the question is, “Did the rhetorically irresponsible Sarah Palin kill anyone in Arizona by fixing crosshairs on her opponents?” the answer is “Of course not.” No one said she did.
It now seems clear that the combative rhetoric through which political adversaries are demonized played no part in the warped thinking of Jared Loughner, the man indicted for the January 8, 2011, attack unleashed on Giffords’s political gathering outside a supermarket. But since such rhetoric evidently did play a role in the murder of George Tiller—the medical director of a women’s health clinic in Wichita, Kansas, that provided late-term abortions—and others, the issue was surely worth considering. Where the public commentary about this tragedy fell short was not in committing to this bit of pop-sociology, but in not bearing down more fully on the contexts that give rise to this type of rampage. There are other aspects of our current climate worth assessing. Indeed, a thorough examination of our cultural moment suggests we shouldn’t be that surprised.
In every society there are addled persons who suffer from various forms of mental illness. Many factors affect the variety and extent of such problems. In some cases, the quality of medical and psychiatric care available greatly affects the activation of violent propensities. Beyond such obvious variables, we should ask: What other environmental conditions escalate the incidence of mental illness? What factors contribute to mental illness being manifest in violent behaviors? What circumstances translate violent impulses into lethal outcomes?
These are hard questions with complicated answers. One possible source of mercy extending from this tragedy, though, would be if we took these questions seriously. The bird’s eye view can help.
The defunding of community mental health centers in the 1980s exacerbated the risks for many vulnerable people. The connection between mental health and strong communities in general is well established. This is especially alarming now in light of the well-documented decline in social capital. As our communities deteriorate, Americans have fewer confidants, which makes the burdens of life that much harder for everyone, including healthy, well-adjusted people. Without close relationships, what chance do we have of reining in one another’s darker impulses?
A society that fosters aggressive competition at all costs, celebrates violence in popular culture, sports, and children’s games, reveres the military-industrial complex, and pursues “cowboy diplomacy” can count on plenty of antagonism. Despite all the pleasant rhetoric to the contrary, bullying is a normative way to get ahead. Violence in response to bullying is rarely productive or justifiable, but it isn’t mysterious either.
Loughner had a documented record of mental instability. The link between the Second Amendment and his ability to purchase a Glock seminautomatic pistol with a 30-round magazine strains even the gun lobby’s twisted logic. Should we wonder in light of this kind of access to weapons that the United States leads the industrialized world in homicides?
What about the anger? People across the political spectrum feel it. Healthy people feel it. So do sick people. Is no one in charge paying attention? Have American economic and political elites ever been so distant from regular people? It is a sad irony that Representative Giffords was bucking the general trend in trying to actually listen to her constituents when Loughner opened fire. Most voters feel let down by aloof Democrat and Republican leaders alike. Half of the electorate doesn’t even bother to vote.
Economic inequality has been intensifying for forty years. The recession has only exacerbated that trend. In negotiating record profits amid a “jobless recovery,” many multinational corporations have again made it clear where their loyalties lie. Confidence in core institutions is thinning. The trust Americans feel for one another is growing weaker too. Many feel like we are not in this together.
But we are. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Will is surely correct that we cannot “banish randomness.” Nothing illustrates alienation more definitively than someone willing to shoot people at random. He is surely wrong if he thinks there are no moral questions to which we should attend extending from the horrors in Tucson. Nothing demonstrates better our hope to restore civic morality than a nation grieving together for those killed and wounded that day.