The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy

On Jan. 8, a man at war with "normal" unleashed other forces also at war with normal, people who are turning our politics into a freak show for their own cynical or sanctimonious reasons

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Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME

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A Scene of Senseless Waste
The first bullet strikes Giffords in the head, tunnels through the left side of her brain and exits. As the woman who would not answer his nonsensical question in 2007 slumps to the pavement, Loughner begins spraying 30 additional rounds into the crowd. Within a few seconds, 18 more people are wounded, six of them mortally. Christina Green lies dying with a bullet in her chest.

Go ahead and cry. That's perfectly normal. Feel the disgust rise up as you contemplate the senseless waste of this scene. Ask, as any reasonable person would, why — nearly four years after the massacre at Virginia Tech, where 33 died, including the shooter — an obviously deranged college student can still fall so easily through the cracks, only to emerge with a gun in his hand.

What is not normal is the reaction of a relatively small but very loud and influential cabal of political commentators who immediately harvested Loughner's atrocity as fuel for their noise machine. In this voluble, digital age, it's impossible to summarize the entirety of this frenzied response, but let's consider just one tone-setting episode.

When news of the shooting broke, the name Gabrielle Giffords rang a loud bell inside the cabal. As a Democrat running for re-election in a Republican district, Giffords earned a spot last year on Sarah Palin's list of vulnerable enemies. Of course, Palin would never say anything as boring as "list of vulnerable Democrats." Instead, her staff posted a map of targeted districts on her Facebook page, each one marked with crosshairs, as though Palin were aiming her trusty rifle.

Normal people compile all sorts of to-do lists without using crosshairs, and Palin could too — but then she wouldn't be Palin. Exhorting her followers to "take up arms" and "reload" rather than "retreat," all with a broad smile on her face, is central to the brand that is making her rich and powerful. And when she's challenged, as she was last year by Giffords about those crosshairs hanging over her, Palin dances away. "When we take up our arms, we're talking about our vote," she declared at a rally last year. Presumably "reload" means "participate in your precinct caucus."

When news of the Tucson shootings erupted, the memory of this episode sent a jolt through the anti-Palin wing of the cabal. Among the first to reach his keyboard was Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, dean of the left-wing bloggers, proprietor of Daily Kos online, who quickly fired a four-word flame that lit up the playpen: "Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin."

Rule one of the cabal is that anything worth stating is worth overstating. And the most outrageous overstatements set the tone for whatever conversation ensues. Other writers rushed to join in the hyperbole, blaming Palin or the Tea Party movement or the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party. The event itself was of little interest — one influential writer, the New Yorker's George Packer, wrote that the actual bloodshed in Tucson was, "in a sense, irrelevant to the important point." Within hours, as Christina Green died and Giffords fought for her life, people all over cable news, and therefore all over the world, were buzzing about America's "climate of fear." And having staked out that ground, the cabal was not about to back down even as we learned that Loughner had no apparent connection to Palin or the Tea Party or border security — that he wasn't an expression of some dangerous new American norm. He was an unhinged young man at war with normal.

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