A moderate centrist politician who had taken some controversial stances is gunned down in broad daylight. The gunman is caught.
The parallels are striking but the similarities end there.
In Arizona the assailant is the crazy guy, the loner, the anti-social, the one everyone is quick to disown. The sigh of relief is that he acted alone.
In Pakistan, he immediately becomes proof of something systemic. Malik Mumtaz Qadri is just its apocalyptic messenger leaving behind a trail of guns and roses.
Qadri proves something is rotten in the state of Pakistan. But Jared Lee Loughner is just a rotten apple. He, like Timothy McVeigh, exists in isolation, the aberration to the American story, even though that story is historically rife with gun-slinging vigilantes, cowboys and bank robbers who are valorized precisely because they took on the government.
When I read the headline this weekend in the New York Times -- "An Assassin's Long Reach," I actually thought it was about Arizona.
But it was really about the assassination of Salman Taseer in Pakistan. Enough people obviously made that same mistake. Next day on the website the headline had changed. It read "A Pakistani Assassin's Long Reach."
The fact is, in America, the Jared Lee Loughners don't have a long reach. They must exist in isolation, burning balls of fire, streaking through our media like a comet. But they cannot be part of any constellation of violence because we live in that constellation.
Now if Loughner had been Mexican American, it would have immediately been seized on as something systemic, not an isolated act of a mentally disturbed person. The groups that have succeeded in squashing ethnic studies in Arizona would triumphantly say that ethnic studies breed just that kind of violent ethnic pride, Aztlan by any force necessary. It would not matter if the gunman had been just as paranoid, mentally unstable and read Ayn Rand and the Communist Manifesto. Ban Chicano studies countrywide would be the refrain.
The reaction in some quarters of Pakistan has been shocking to many here. The New York Times carried a photograph of militants waiting to cheer the assassin with rose petals. (Of course that presupposes anyone who might support Qadri is a militant.)
In the United States all sides were quick to disclaim any responsibility that they might have fanned the rhetoric, though Roger Ailes apparently did tell Russell Simmons he'd "told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually." But in most part they were instead busy scrubbing the internet for all traces of maps with representatives in the cross hairs.
Yet, the political discourse in the United States is just as vicious. There are enough people who secretly (and not so secretly) say "They had it coming" when the other side goes down -- whether it's an abortion provider or an undocumented migrant or a politician. Shirley Phelps-Roger of the notorious funeral-picketing Westboro Baptist Church already told the media "God sent the shooter" since Gabrielle Giffords was one of the "rotten rebels" destroying the country. The health care town halls showed that the Mecca of vitriol is not just in Tucson, Arizona.
But the point is not whether in our gotcha politics the left can draw a straight line connecting Sarah Palin's target-practice maps to Gabrielle Giffords' shooting. Or whether the right can claim that Loughner was a pot-smoking liberal.
The point is this thing of darkness. Can America claim it as her own?