"We must reject the idea that every time a law's broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions." ~ Sarah Palin, Wednesday, January 12, 2011
This is one of the least inflammatory remarks uttered by the former governor of Alaska regarding the Tucson tragedy, but it's the most unsettling. Though hostile, the cross-hairs over Representative Gifford's district were not responsible for the Tucson shooting. The use of the term "blood libel" is not likely a brazen show of anti-Semitism but rather ignorance about the history of the word. The above quote, borrowing from Ronald Reagan, however, is most reckless because it perpetuates a dangerous belief: This was an isolated incident.
"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own," Palin also said. With his own brand of non-committal speciousness, President Obama agreed by saying that this was one of those incidents that cannot be understood or attributed to a single factor. Both politicians had their own motivations: Palin wanted to deflect some of the criticism being hurled at her and conservative pundits; Obama was trying to strike a tone of civility and reconciliation in his speech. But the incident does not stand alone. None do.
We shouldn't blame society for Jared Loughner's terrorism, but we shouldn't let it off the hook either. We must remember that we are all, without exception, products of our society and, in that respect, every action, however terrible, in some way reflects the environment in which it germinated. To label someone a monster is to dismiss him and not understand him. The danger in that is that we risk other Jared Loughners. In the words of that old aphorism, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
Trying to understand the situation doesn't exonerate Loughner. He should feel the full force of the law, but to believe that he is somehow exempt from the influence of society is not just naïve, it's dangerous. Take the Columbine shootings as an example. Some of the same language was used to describe the culprits of the infamous school shooting. Shortly thereafter, there was a flurry of school shootings across the country, clearly mimicking Columbine, which should serve as some proof that those who commit acts of violence and murder are influenced by those around them and the media that they consume.
The same can be said for international terrorism. It's easy to label Islamic extremists "evil" or "monsters," but the truth is that they are real people with real motivations, however misguided and destructive. Apart from the 9/11 masterminds, those who executed the 9/11 attack were disenfranchised young men that were easily influenced. They had nothing to lose and, so they thought, paradise to gain. To be clear, the 9/11 terrorists committed an unspeakable crime, and, had they survived, should have been punished severely, but to "other-ise" them does ourselves a tremendous disservice. We hamper our ability to anticipate their motivations and thereby dissuade and prevent future acts of terrorism.
Jared Loughner did not exist in a vacuum, and he's not a monster. He's a person -- one that, as we've discovered from recent reporting, suffered from a sense of anomie and frustration. As a society, we owe it to ourselves to learn from Jared Loughner and to listen to other Jared Loughners that, as I write, are screaming for attention.
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