Amid the conjecture, pop psychologizing, hand-wringing and condemnation provoked by this weekend's terrible carnage in Arizona, only one inescapable fact emerges: A young man who had decided to kill people was able to go out and easily procure the weaponry needed to get the job done.
Yes, as the pundits have explored and will continue to, his violent assault on an Arizona congresswoman and the unfortunate people around her speaks to a multitude of disturbing cultural factors. We can focus on the shrill, even hateful tone that sometimes dominates the political conversation, and suggest with some justification that it may be encouraging actual physical violence. We can dissect the way in which the Tea Party tends to frame every issue as a good-versus-evil struggle, with the core civil rights of a free people supposedly under threat by the slavish lackeys of totalitarianism -- potential impetus for warped minds to construe murder as heroism.
We can point to opportunistic politicians who fan the flames of resentment against Big Government, fueling the sorts of conspiracy theories to which the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, appears to have subscribed. We can examine the cavalier way in which disingenuous cultural arbiters assert that everything in America would seemingly be marvelous were it not for the illegals streaming over the border.
We can look at how the cosmopolitan elite lampoons those distrustful of the federal government as a bunch of trailer-dwelling fools, the condescension that too often infuses mainstream-media treatment of people with real grievances and fears.
We can drill into Loughner's unique history -- his reported attempt to enlist in the military, his bizarre outbursts in an Arizona college classroom, his proclivities for libertarian politics and his potential sympathies for hate groups. We can buy into any number of potentially plausible explanations for what produced this particular vessel of pathology, this alienated young man who ultimately showed up in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson and opened fire.
But in the end, these sorts of treatments amount to nothing more than an intellectual exercise, an attempt to impose a coherent narrative on something that otherwise is so morally repellent as to be senseless. Sifting through the tragedy for the cultural or biographical explanations that seem to fit the case will not keep semiautomatic weapons out of the hands of people with lethal intent. Only serious gun-control laws and stiffened enforcement have a chance to do that.
We Americans have developed an agreed-upon social protocol for how to react to the gun-related horrors that regularly capture the news pages. Journalists spring into action with a standard-issue set of questions: What happened? Who did it? What made him snap? Should someone have known? Yet this whole exercise of seeking to identify the unique strain of madness at work seems more about enabling false comfort then fully elucidating how we got here, a sideshow distracting us from the hard work that would be required to take on the gun lobby and limit access to the only part of the narrative that weighs in as a hard, cold fact: the weapon.
This is an understandable human reaction to tragedy, like when someone you know gets mugged, and you find yourself trying to identify their error: What were they doing on that street at that time of night? (Because, as the question makes implicit, you wouldn't have been stupid enough to be there.) Didn't they know better than to put their wallet in that pocket? Here is the mindset of denial, the attempt to bury the universality of what has just happened beneath differentiating details that render the case an aberration.
So it goes now with our search for the secret to Jared Loughner. Was he mentally ill? Was it something he read on a particularly hateful website? Was it religion, hatred of immigrants, something he suffered as a child? Was it the wrong medication? Should the authorities have stepped in and stopped it before it happened?
These questions -- inherently interesting and relevant in their own way -- will not help us avoid the next such chapter in our national history. Every country has mentally unstable people, conspiracy theorists and kooks. Every land has angry young men with rage enough to hurt other people. But not every country has easy access to semiautomatic weapons, a uniquely American feature that can be awfully difficult to explain to citizens of other countries, be they Japanese, French or Australian.
We are the only developed country that has managed to turn a rightful pride in our hard-earned independence into a justification for social insanity. We have taken our identity as a nation forged on the frontier, our enduring sense of resourcefulness, and transformed it into a fetish for gun freedom. We are not Europeans in need of the nanny state, we like to tell ourselves, and somehow that has gained political currency as a justification to enable seemingly anyone to walk into a store and walk out -- eventually, after a little paperwork -- with a hunk of metal capable of ending multiple lives in a matter of seconds.
Until we fully we reckon with that, we will certainly be here again, sorting through the life of one or another deranged individual, holding the culture up for scrutiny, asking what went wrong.
Surely, another young man will eventually become disaffected enough to resort to violence. The culture, the polity, perhaps mental illness and the vague influences of a talking head will combine to yield a deep enough sense of fear and injury to instill murderous intent. That will happen as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow. The only truly meaningful question is whether that young man will be unleashed into a country that offers him the material for efficient killing, or whether we will put aside our political dysfunction, our polarized distrust and accusation long enough to accomplish something of enduring value: a reasonable set of rules governing who can carry a gun.