The Arizona Shooting and the Problem with Asking Who's to Blame

01/15/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Terry Newell Founder, Leadership for a Responsible Society

The tragic shooting of 19 people, six of whom died, in the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has raised, quite naturally, the question of who is responsible. Jared Loughner's rampage is an affront to civilized society and a direct challenge to our form of government. It's a critical question, and the victims deserve a thoughtful answer. But that does not mean we'll approach it thoughtfully. If we do not, we compound one tragedy with another.

The question of responsibility can quickly lead to invective instead of insight. That has already begun in the typical attempt to fix blame. But blame is not the same as responsibility. Blame, derived from the Latin blashemare, means "to rebuke, reprimand, condemn, criticize." Responsible, derived from the Latin responsus, means "to be morally accountable for one's actions." Blame is a one way focus on what others have done. Responsibility is a two-way conversation on what we owe to each other. If we seek to fix blame instead of responsibility, we take the mentally easy way out. The former requires only anger. The latter requires fact, analysis, and empathic dialogue.

One piece of the answer should be simple. Jared Loughner is directly responsible. Even if we believe, or a court finds, that he was legally insane at the time of his action, he is responsible for what he did. While insanity may be a legal reason to treat him differently than a criminal with full mental capacity, it should not excuse his moral culpability. The insanity defense, should he choose to use that, can blur this important point. We might be better if our legal system first determined guilt or innocence and only then considered one's mental state at the time of his or her action, as a factor that affects the nature of punishment.

But who else, if anyone, beyond Jared Loughner is morally accountable? Here we need to make a distinction between the bad apple -- Loughner -- and the bad barrel. Was Jared Loughner destined to kill, or did the social context in which he lived play some indirect part in fostering his rampage? Reasonable people will disagree, but that does not mean we cannot reason about this.

Fact: Loughner slipped through the mental health system. As a Pima Community College student, his aberrant behavior was seen and led to the decision to expel him from school. It did not lead him into a system of care. Fact: he legally purchased and carried a concealed weapon. Fact: threats against members of Congress tripled between 2009 and 2010. Fact: the rhetoric in politics is often vitriolic, though this has happened before in America. Fact: the United States ranks number 4 (behind South Africa, Columbia and Thailand) in the number of murders with firearms, a total of 9,369 in 2002 (the last year of international comparisons), nearly five times the weighted average of all nations. Fact: Loughner was not the first instance of a seeming social loner resorting to mass violence. We have seen this before: at Columbine in 1999 and at Virginia Tech in 2007, to name just two of the most extreme examples. We could go on, but the reality is that the social environment in which Loughner lived -- and the people that daily create and sustain that environment -- should be asking about the extent of their own moral accountability. The fact that such tragedies continue suggests that we not treat each as a single incident but look for the systemic factors that create the water in which these deadly fish swim -- and our own responsibility for that polluted stream.

Finally, we can also identify what is irresponsible behavior in the coming weeks and months: using this tragedy as a vehicle to score points by blaming others. Some are blaming Republican or Tea Party politicians, media personalities, and interest groups that heighten political rhetoric for partisan gain. And these people and groups blame those who blame them -- often Democrats and liberal interest groups -- for using the tragedy to make political capital out of a capital crime. Some are blaming the mental health community for not having a sufficient safety net to deal with the Jared Loughners in America. Some are blaming the educational system for treating his aberrant behavior as a symptom to be excised not treated. Some are blaming the "gun culture" in America and the lack of more restrictions on the sale of weapons and ammunition, while others are blaming the gun control advocates for blaming the crime on the absence of gun controls. But we should be clear: blaming leads only to defensiveness. It seeks to externalize responsibility. Those who blame are not exercising a level of moral responsibility that the victims in Tucson deserve.

NASA astronaut and brother-in-law of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Scott Kelly, looking on earth from space on January 10th, noted that, "We are better than this. We must do better." He is right. But until each of us asks what we are doing -- or not doing -- to act on our moral responsibility to help find, help, and heal or, failing that, call to the attention of authorities those who cannot be helped -- we avoid our own moral accountability for stopping such tragedies in the American we love. Jared Loughner acted alone, and his aloneness should call out to all of us.

Responsibility is what we owe to each other. As Catholic theologian John Carroll put it years ago: "In the end, as in the beginning, we are responsible to each other and for each other. It is that kind of island, this earth."