After Tucson

The shootings in Arizona have prompted a national conversation on guns, mental illness and the state of our political discourse

  • Win McNamee / Getty Images

    Trying to make sense of it all: Members of the media assemble outside the home of Randy and Amy Loughner, parents of alleged gunman Jared Loughner

    One of the attributes that make us human is that we try to make sense of things that don't make sense. We often impute order where there may be none. These traits can lead us to form conclusions that don't correspond to reality. For most people, that's not a problem. But as journalists, trying to find meaning is what defines us. It's what we do. And we need to get it right.

    For the past week, Americans have been trying to make sense of a senseless act of violence. This has provoked a discussion on the role of political discourse, guns and mental illness in our society. That is as it should be. But this discussion has quickly fallen into predictable patterns: the left blaming the right for inflammatory rhetoric, the right blaming the left for unfairly singling it out. Tucson, Ariz., has become a kind of Rorschach test of where you are on the political spectrum when it comes to free speech and the right to bear arms.

    We don't know whether inflammatory language or images can incite the mentally ill to commit acts of violence. It seems unlikely. But when we demonize our political adversaries rather than their points of view, we go beyond the bounds of desirable discourse, even though doing so is permitted under the First Amendment. The Constitution allows violent speech, but it abhors violence. But just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean you should.

    At the same time, I would never put restrictions on what people can say, no matter how violent the rhetoric — as long as it remains rhetoric. That's the standard in Brandenburg v. Ohio , the Supreme Court's defining case on free speech. "Mere advocacy" of any doctrine, however violent, does not violate the First Amendment. And that makes sense. Words don't kill people; guns do. In an open and free society, we don't police speech, but we do police those who violate the law by committing violent acts. Our job is not to restrict speech but to restrict access to weapons by those who should not have them.

    This special issue reflects the complexity of what happened in Tucson and its aftermath. When the story broke, news director Howard Chua-Eoan contacted Nathan Thornburgh, who had written a piece on the political climate in Arizona last year, and sent him to the scene. Local reporter Adam Klawonn was soon filing for Washington bureau chief Michael Duffy sent Alex Altman to Arizona, while other members of the Washington bureau reported on all aspects of the shooting. Photographer Matt Slaby was on the ground for us by the night of Jan. 8.

    David Von Drehle, for his opening story, drew on all this reporting in a masterly way, telling not only of what happened but of the intemperateness and score settling the event produced afterward. No one understands better than David that the public discourse of the commentariat has very little to do with how ordinary Americans live their lives. John Cloud's piece on the mental illness of Jared Loughner explains the complicated science of what goes on in an unhinged mind. Michael Grunwald's story on what has happened to gun control attempts to answer the question of why you can't carry a bottle of shampoo on an airplane but can buy a semiautomatic weapon, even if you're not in your right mind. Joe Klein looks at the political terrain that got us here and the unintended consequences of allowing mentally ill people and automatic weapons on the streets.

    That being said, have we been able to find meaning where there may be none? You be the judge. At the very least, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, you may find some comfort in our adaptation of Ruth Davis Konigsberg's new book, The Truth About Grief , which examines the latest research on loss and explains why we're more resilient than we think.