The assumption that a killing spree in Arizona was sparked by the political climate was understandable, albeit apparently mistaken.
From sketchy information released about the shooting suspect, it would appear the 22-year-old man is deeply disturbed. Yes, he may have been moved to shoot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and kill or wound 19 others after listening to Rush Limbaugh. Then again, his murderous rampage may have been triggered by too many reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show.
Certainly, President Obama should be applauded for delivering a nationally televised speech in which he attempted to tone down the vitriol we Americans have been exposed to in recent years. Obama's speech Wednesday night struck the right tone, emphasizing good things about this country and praising those who performed heroically during the horrific attack. In doing so, he followed a tradition of consoler presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who performed that role following the Challenger explosion and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, respectively.
If there is a silver lining to such tragedies, it may be that our fellow countrymen come together in an outpouring of grief and in expressions of sympathy.
Unfortunately, such sentiments usually last for only a short time. Americans of different political stripes no doubt soon will resume attacking each other, goaded by the ideologues who dominate talk radio, jabberfest TV and social media.
Still, before Gabby Giffords' recovery and the deaths of six fellow Americans unfortunate enough to be in her presence when the attack occurred fade from the national consciousness, there are a couple of aspects to this tragedy that deserve further debate.
The first deals with the lack of barriers to acquiring weapons such as the one Jared Lee Loughner used to inflict mayhem. Granted, Americans' love of their guns makes it unthinkable that Arizona would restrict concealed weapons or require background checks sufficiently stringent to have prevented Loughner from buying a gun. (The suspect had some minor run-ins with the law but none that kept him from exercising his Second Amendment rights.)
Arizona's gun laws notwithstanding, ought there not be a national discussion on the merits of banning ammunition clips that hold enough rounds to slaughter two dozen or more human beings? What legitimate reason could there be for such weapons of mass destruction to be in the hands of people, except perhaps soldiers or police?
Granted, nothing would have kept Loughner from buying several handguns, but it's significant that bystanders disabled and disarmed him only after he tried to reload. Had his gun contained half as many rounds, some of his victims might be alive today.
A more important discussion is urgently needed about the suspect's mental state and what might have been done to prevent the Tucson shootings in the first place.
Although he has been widely demonized, it's hard to believe that Loughner wasn't suffering from schizophrenia or a similar condition. Former companions and classmates have described a person out of touch with reality. Authorities repeatedly were dispatched to deal with his erratic behavior. A community college kicked him out with the admonition that he wouldn't be allowed to return until a mental evaluation indicated he wasn't dangerous.
That the "system" failed to identify and treat this troubled young man is obvious. What's less understood is that tens of thousands of Americans who also suffer from serious mental illness routinely fall through society's cracks.
Thankfully, most of them pose no threat, except perhaps to themselves.
Family members and professionals who treat mentally ill people can testify that our society is poorly equipped to handle mental illness. Generally speaking, neither our schools nor police have the understanding or means to deal with disturbed citizens. Our streets are "home" to mentally ill people who legally can't be committed but who seldom receive help for a biological condition that usually can be controlled, if not cured.
Simple solutions to the problem don't exist. Educating the public and removing the stigma of mental illness, a prerequisite for reform, would be a monumental task in itself.
Nevertheless, if the Tucson massacre doesn't stimulate a national debate on mental health, what other lesson will we learn or long remember?