Like many people who have come forward to speak or write about the Tucson massacre, I know and adore Gabby Giffords. It is virtually impossible not to adore her. She has a presence and graciousness that light up a room.
That she survived a shot from a semi-automatic at close range is remarkable. Yet the trauma she has endured -- psychologically and neurologically -- is not one that ever leaves a person untouched. The only question at this point is how much of that radiant light anyone who knows her has seen in her eyes and her smile will return. And for that, we can only hope, pray, and wait for her brain to heal itself.
We know little about the events that led to her shooting, to the death of at least six people, and to the massacre that left 14 others on the ground. But we do know three things.
The first is that the man witnesses say was the shooter, who did everything he could to destroy the brains of his victims, was likely himself the victim of a damaged brain. Even before reporters started to interview his professors and college classmates who were frightened by his erratic behavior in class last fall, the three YouTube videos he left as testimony to his mental state left no doubt that he is delusional and probably in the midst of a psychotic episode (a fancy way of saying that his brain is no longer functioning so that he can tell reality from unreality -- even by Tea Party standards).
We know a great deal more about illnesses such as schizophrenia than we knew when our laws on "insanity" evolved. Perhaps most importantly, we now know that the kind of conceptual and linguistic incoherence in Jared Loughner's YouTube videos is the result of a broken brain -- more "madness" than "badness," although we do not yet know enough about him to know how clear the line between them is in this case.
Allowing someone who is clearly paranoid, delusional, and incoherent -- in the midst of a psychotic episode -- to have a semi-automatic weapon in his hands is like putting a car in the hands of someone in the midst of an epileptic seizure during rush-hour traffic. Should Loughner turn out to be psychotic and brain-diseased, as appears to be the case, he will be no more genuinely culpable for the acts he has committed -- regardless of what the law says -- than a person who had his first seizure while driving through a crowded Tucson intersection. Less can be said for our political leaders -- a point to which we shall shortly return.
Second, the fact that the shooter is mentally ill does not mean that his mind and brain exist in a vacuum. When Bill O'Reilly and his ilk on Fox began their attacks on "Tiller the Killer" -- the physician who provided legal abortions until he was gunned down in his church in the name of Jesus -- they fired the first shots in the uncivil war that has just claimed six more lives. To make the claim that the constant propagandizing against Tiller by a television network -- including the publicizing of his whereabouts -- played no role in the events that led an assassin to choose him as his target would be as psychotic as Loughner's incoherent YouTube diatribes. Surely a deranged killer could have found someone else to target among the over 300 million people who call this country home.
But the fact that the causal link between Fox's jihad against an American citizen and his ultimate assassination at the hands of a religiously motivated terrorist never became a topic of widespread discussion except on a couple of evening shows on MSNBC, that it prompted no change in the way the rightwing propaganda machine has villified American citizens, and that it prompted little more than one or two brief written statements from our top elected officials -- perhaps a congressional hearing or two might have been in order? -- is a profound indictment of both our media and our political system.
And now we have seen the same thing play out again.
The quasi-delusional rantings of media personalities such as Glenn Beck and the cognitively and psychiatrically impaired candidates and elected officials we have come to accept as part of the American political landscape in the 21st century, like the hate-mongering of Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, are part of the political and psychological air a psychotic shooter like Jared Loughner breathes.
Did prominent personalities like Brewer (or Sarah Palin, who literally put Gabby Giffords in her "crosshairs") cause this attack? No, any more than Bill O'Reilly and Rupert Murdoch caused the jihadist attack on a physician who had violated a terrorist's religious sensibilities -- or, for that matter, any more than jihadist websites that publicize the "blasphemies" perpetrated by the United States cause alienated young men to become suicide bombers against us or our allies.
Did Beck, Brewer, and crew contribute to the conditions that created the latest assassinations, irrespective of the prayers and pieties they and Republican politicians like John Boehner are now lavishing on the people they have encouraged their fellow citizens to hate (those with their "job-killing" and "baby-killing" agendas -- which they apparently pursue when they aren't setting up "death panels")? Try reading alleged shooter Loughner's rants about government, the terrorists who have seized control over it, and what they are doing to our Constitution and argue that he was not breathing in Foxified fumes and Brewer's bigotry.
Third, although the political context was different, we have seen this movie before in yet another sense. Columbine, Virginia Tech, countless shootings in schools and churches in between and since -- what do they share in common? Deafening silence from those who call themselves our leaders.
Since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in that terrible summer of 1968, over a million Americans have died at the wrong end of a firearm. In most countries, we would call that genocide.
This was not the first time Gabby Giffords -- or countless other lawmakers, candidates, and elected officials, including President Obama -- was confronted at a campaign rally or town hall meeting by gun-toting bullies, whose primary goal -- at least until this time -- was intimidation. That bringing a weapon (in Arizona, concealed) within that proximity to an elected official could be legal in the world's longest-lasting democracy is both surreal and shameful -- and now it threatens that democracy.
Whether they are owned and operated by the NRA, too cowardly to take on the NRA for fear of being defeated in the next election, or misled into believing that the average American is as psychotic as the man who opened fire in Tucson (i.e., that most Americans can't tell the difference between hunting deer and hunting people, or between a hunting rifle and a semi-automatic), our leaders have either faithfully served the interest of Smith and Wesson and the gun lobby or failed to oppose them. The result is that the country has shifted to the right on gun safety, which is what naturally happens when the right is vocal and the left is frightened and silent.
But even today, if you simply speak to ordinary Americans in plain English, they do not believe in the NRA's interpretation of the Second Amendment. Americans are, if nothing else, strong believers in common sense, and the same people who willingly walk through metal detectors at airports and other settings understand the importance of metal detectors for protecting their elected officials -- just as they support them for protecting their kids if there's any chance they could be harmed at school.
Consider a message colleagues and I tested with two large national samples of registered voters, which beat a tough conservative anti-regulation message on guns by 20 points with both the general electorate and swing voters:
Every law-abiding citizen has the right to bear arms to hunt and protect his family. But that right doesn't extend to criminals, terrorists, and the dangerously mentally ill... We need to use some common sense in deciding what kind of weapons we want on the streets. I don't know any hunters who keep stockpiles of munitions in their basements, and I don't think the Founding Fathers had AK-47s in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment.
Another message beat the conservative message by forty points with Independent voters, by beginning with a simple statement of principle with which voters across the political spectrum agree if they simply hear it enunciated:
My view on guns reflects one simple principle: that our gun laws should guarantee the rights and freedoms of all law-abiding Americans. That's why I stand with the majority who believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns to hunt and protect their families. And that's why I also stand with the majority who believe they have the right to send their kids to school in the morning and have them come home safely.
Or consider yet another message, which began as follows:
"Every law-abiding American has the right to own a gun to hunt and protect his family... But you don't need an assault weapon to hunt deer, and if you do, you shouldn't be anywhere near a gun."
Americans get it, if you just speak to them like adults.
None of these messages is a "hard left" message on guns -- a message that might better fit the sensibilities of (and be more appropriate for) New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts, or much of the West Coast. But these are messages that win all over the heartland -- and even win in some unlikely places, like the Deep South and the West -- because they aren't about taking away the rights of law-abiding gun owners. They are about protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens, whether they own a gun or not.
We used to be the arsenal of democracy. With the events of this weekend, our arsenal has been turned against our democracy.
If our elected officials are in the pocket of those who would allow the shooting of their colleagues with semi-automatic weapons with no legitimate civilian uses -- while mouthing platitudes about their concern for their colleagues -- it's time to call their bluff.
Guns don't kill people. Cowards and lobbyists do.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.
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