Monday, Jan. 10, 2011

The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy

So much of this story is ugly and twisted that it's best to begin with something beautiful and good.

Christina Green is walking eagerly through a sun-splashed Arizona Saturday morning, a busy girl on her way to the next adventure. She is 9 going on 29, with mahogany bangs and one of those great third-grader smiles, with the grownup choppers looming in front and the baby teeth so teensy by comparison. She wants to be an adult "so bad," her babysitter has observed — but for now she's a just about perfect kid. She loves baseball and Beyoncé Knowles, and her daddy calls her Princess. For Christmas, she asked to volunteer at a soup kitchen.

To date, Christina has planned to make her living as a major league ballplayer, and you shouldn't count her out. She has the bloodlines: her grandfather, Dallas Green, managed the Phillies to a World Series title, and her father John is a scout for the Dodgers. And she has the grit. But recently her classmates at Mesa Verde Elementary elected her to the student council, which has inspired a family friend to introduce Christina to another possible career. That's why she's here, in the parking lot of La Toscana Village, a strip shopping center in Tucson's northern hills, where Representative Gabrielle Giffords is hosting a meet-and-greet with her constituents.

"My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now," Giffords tweeted from her iPad two minutes before 10 a.m. "Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind." Two days earlier, when members of Congress took turns reading the Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives, Giffords was called on to recite the First Amendment, the one guaranteeing the right of Americans to peaceably assemble and petition their government. Now she is honoring those words.

Christina Green's big, chocolaty eyes take in this scene of government the way it's supposed to be, as accessible as the nearby Safeway. Giffords is a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district that is struggling with the divisive issues of immigration and border security. So this won't be a lovefest. Some of those peaceably assembling are there to tell Giffords how much they admire her, and some intend to give her a piece of their mind.

That's the way it's supposed to be. The way it is, day in and day out, in places all over this country. Rational exchanges among reasonable people with differing views. The scene is so routine, so mundane — the grocery store and the folding chairs and the elected official nodding attentively — that we lose sight of the wonder in it. But this is what normal looks like. Pay attention.

Because a taxicab has pulled into the parking lot, carrying a man who is at war with normal. And what he is about to do will unleash other forces also at war with normal, people who are turning our politics into a freak show for their own cynical or sanctimonious reasons. Jared Loughner, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses and having got change from a Safeway cashier to pay the cabdriver, is now walking up to Representative Giffords and leveling a Glock 19 pistol at her head. The ugly and twisted part comes next.

The Boy for Whom Things Went Awry
Up to this moment on the sidewalk outside the grocery store, Loughner's war against normal has been waged mostly inside his head. The symptoms and trajectory of his disease followed the classic pattern so completely that research psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey could say, without ever meeting Loughner, that "chances are 99% that he has schizophrenia." Loughner was a nice, friendly boy, tooting his saxophone in the school band, until his mid-teens, when things began to go awry. He quit the band and began drinking heavily and doing drugs. He lost touch with his friends. "There were times when he would just hang out by himself, and you could tell he didn't want to be bothered by people," says Ashley Beager, a classmate at Mountain View High School. Eventually, Loughner dropped out of school.

Schizophrenia, if Loughner does indeed suffer from that mental illness, often strikes in the mid- to late teens and is a harrowing disease. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "people with the disorder may hear voices other people don't hear. They may believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts or plotting to harm them. This can terrify people with the illness and make them withdrawn or extremely agitated. People with schizophrenia may not make sense when they talk. They may sit for hours without moving or talking. Sometimes people with schizophrenia seem perfectly fine until they talk about what they are really thinking."

By the time he turned 20, Loughner had begun to elaborate bizarre belief systems. He was a victim of government mind control, he believed. He could fight back by inventing a new currency. He could learn to dream while conscious, which would give him the power to fly. He could invent a new grammar that would reduce government to a mere word. It was this concept that led him to ask Representative Giffords, at an open meeting in 2007, "What is government if words have no meaning?" Giffords skipped lightly to the next question. Loughner was outraged that she didn't indulge his delusion. "He said, 'Can you believe it? They wouldn't answer my question,' and I told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that,' " Loughner's friend Bryce Tierney told reporter Nick Baumann of Mother Jones magazine. "Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her."

Note the date: 2007. George W. Bush was in the White House. Hillary Clinton was the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, some 30 points ahead of a freshman U.S. Senator named Barack Obama. And Sarah Palin, for what it is worth, was the little-known first-year governor of Alaska.

When Kylie Smith, a friend of Loughner's, met him at a party the following year, he told her that he was trying to get his life back in order. Tierney says his friend stopped drinking, cut back on the weed, began working out. Loughner tried to enlist in the Army but was bounced after admitting to a history of dope smoking. His effort to pull himself together was a failure at Pima Community College as well, where Loughner's strange outbursts grew more frequent and his demeanor more unsettling.

"On the surface, at first, he seemed like a normal guy, until he started making some disruptive comments that were pretty random and senseless," says math professor Benjamin McGahee, who had Loughner in his algebra class last fall. "He started making students feel uncomfortable from the first day. He had this bright red complexion and kind of shaking and trembling as if he was under the influence of drugs."

Unnerved, a number of McGahee's students stayed after class to complain. McGahee tried to reason with Loughner, but it did no good. He just accused the teacher of violating his First Amendment rights. Other students continued to complain. Four weeks into the term, the college suspended Loughner, telling him that he could not return to class until he had a letter from a mental-health professional certifying that he was not dangerous.

He didn't return. But he did buy a gun.

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.

Dramatizing the Trivial
Meanwhile, we learned that Sarah Palin wasn't the only person who made Giffords a "target" in 2010 and put "a bull's eye" on her district in an online posting. Moulitsas did too — after Giffords joined a bunch of other Democrats in voting for a surveillance bill he didn't like. True, he didn't illustrate his list with crosshairs — or "surveyor's marks," as a Palin spokesperson argued implausibly after the shootings. But the metaphors were the same. This was a clarifying moment, for rarely have we seen the workings and values of this influential cabal so nakedly exposed. Right or left, their genius is for dramatizing trivial things; there is no other way to remain outraged 24/7. Now they were tripped up as they trivialized dramatic events. When a left-wing catalyst is caught denouncing a right-wing darling for an offense they both committed — an offense of distortion and exaggeration — their game starts to unravel. You see that it's not one side against the other. It's both sides against the normal.

Take a moment to ask why Moulitsas and Palin, who agree on almost nothing, would be united in targeting Giffords. The first reason is that she refuses to indulge their shared delusion that the U.S. would be a better place if it were run by ideologues. She is a person of moderate views and pragmatic politics, able to listen respectfully to the opinions of others and disagree without being disagreeable, which places her squarely in the American mainstream. She doesn't vote in lockstep with either party, and thus neither extreme is willing to tolerate her.

The other reason she and others like her end up as targets is that they represent districts that accurately reflect the divided mind of the American electorate. Elected officials in swing districts are always in danger of losing, and when one of them does, the creators of the target lists can boast of their fearsome power. It's like standing on a beach as the tide turns and claiming to control the ocean.

Like the Wizard of Oz, the cabal's entire authority hinges on this ability to exaggerate its power. Their numbers are, in fact, relatively small. The audience for the most popular talk-radio show is perhaps 1 in every 20 Americans. On cable TV, the most watched political pot stirrer draws roughly 1 out of every 100 Americans. As for Daily Kos, on an average day you would have to search through about 450 Americans to find one who had visited the site.

Informed and insightful political commentary has never been more abundant and easily available, thanks to the Internet. Yet the voices of the sensationalists are louder than ever. They tell us we live in a climate of fear despite all evidence to the contrary — the many peaceable assemblies, the nonviolent transfers of power, the freedom to speak and dissent without risk of punishment. It is a climate of their own creation, ginned up on both extremes for the purpose of keeping their audiences in a state of perpetual alarm.

Delusion is their business. They babble about bizarre alternate realities in which right-wing fanatics terrorize the land or a socialist in the White House plots to overthrow the Constitution. Theirs is a world in which Christopher Ruddy, prime fabulist of the Vince Foster "murder," sets up shop as a "news" mogul, and David Brock, confessed smear artist, pontificates on media ethics, and Glenn Beck, self-described "rodeo clown," masquerades as a historian, and Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief, issues an appeal for reasoned discourse just weeks after saying that NPR executives are "Nazis."

The events of the past week should awaken us to the danger of further indulging their delusions. Heeding the cabal entails serious consequences for normal Americans. When the cabal is allowed to define political reality, the result is dysfunctional government: A government in which extremists in both parties have created a perpetual shortage of federal judges by blocking nominations. A government that can't pass its appropriations bills or reform its broken entitlement programs. A government run by the sort of conniving operatives who can contemplate those bodies on the Tucson pavement and ask themselves — as one unnamed Democrat mused to Politico — how they can "deftly pin this on the Tea Partyers."

How Normal Fights Back
When Dorwan Stoddard heard the explosions, he needed only a moment to realize it was gunfire. He told his wife Mavy to take cover under some folding chairs, then threw himself on top of her. His body absorbed the fatal shots. George Morris, a retired Marine who loves a robust political argument, tried to do the same for his wife Dorothy. He took two bullets, but not the one that killed her. John Roll, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Arizona, had dropped by to thank Giffords for her support of the overstretched judiciary. Now he lay dying, along with Gabe Zimmerman, the Congresswoman's smiling director of community outreach, and Phyllis Schneck, a lifelong Republican who wanted to say a few admiring words to her Democratic Representative.

All casualties in a war on normalcy. But now watch what the normal folks do. As Loughner nears the end of his extended ammunition clip, an unidentified man in the crowd stands up beside the rampaging gunman, grabs a folding chair and smashes it across Loughner's back. As the gunman staggers, his left hand flies out, and Bill Badger, a retired U.S. Army colonel, grabs it and twists. "Bill is a man of action," his wife later explained.

Badger has blood streaming from a head wound as he shoves the killer to the ground. Screaming and thrashing, Loughner digs in his pocket for another clip, but Patricia Maisch, who had been wondering a split second earlier what it would feel like if a bullet hit her, snatches the ammo and pries it from his grip. And now a looming doctor named Steve Rayle throws himself onto Loughner's midsection, and burly Joseph Zamudio comes dashing up from Walgreens and falls on Loughner's flailing legs. "I didn't think about it," Zamudio said afterward. "I just heard something and tried to help."

The shooting is over.

Nearby sits Daniel Hernandez, a young intern for Giffords. He was directing traffic when he heard the first shots. He ran toward the danger, figuring that his first-aid training would be needed. He arrived to find Giffords horribly wounded, in danger of choking on her own blood, and now is holding her upright in his lap and soothing her as he presses his hand onto her shattered face to stem the bleeding. She seems to know what is happening — which is, among other things, that this young man is saving her life.

"Of course you're afraid," Hernandez mused later. "You just kind of have to do what you can."

How many times have we heard this story? The one about people rising to the occasion, storming the cockpit of the hijacked jet, racing into the burning building, tackling the gunman, saving a life. They hear something and try to help. Of course they're afraid, but they just have to do what they can. This is how normal fights back, by rejecting fear and choosing courage.

Christina Green's birthday was Sept. 11, 2001. Like all 9/11 babies, she entered this world as a ray of hope on a dark, dark day. Her short life was radiant with possibility and promise. Her death, and everything wrought that day by Jared Loughner, was senseless and wrenching — but in no way was it an expression of what we've become. Don't let anyone tell you it is.

With reporting by Alex Altman and Katy Steinmetz / Tucson; Cleo Brock-Abraham / New York; and Massimo Calabresi, Steven Gray and Mark Thompson / Washington