A few observations about the Tucson massacre:
One of the smartest things I heard from one of Keith Olbermann's guests last night was that it is often enough a false dichotomy to suggest that mental illness cannot coincide with political motives. I do not know whether Loughner is mentally ill--and I am VERY reluctant to attach this term to him unless he really qualifies for it. We are entirely too quick to use this language to describe the character, demeanor, habits of those who do not conform as "nuts."
Having said this, however, even if it turns out that Loughner is rightly--clinically--describable as mentally ill, that in no way means that he is not (a) politically motivated and/or (b) culpable for his actions. The two issues--is he mentally competent? Were his actions politically motivated? must be treated separately--and any answer to one is NOT an answer to the other. Moreover, it seems quite clear that even if he suffers mental impairment, it is NOT like that of, say, Jeff Dahmer.
There is also the very interesting question of what we mean by "politically motivated." This has many possible aspects. The evidence is clearly very murky here so far, but it seems that we can say this much:
1. Little evidence (so far) supports the claim that Loughner was motivated by the obvious hot-button issues like health care or immigration directly. But several of his claims (youtube, etc) Do seem to support the claim that he was profoundly disaffected as a citizen, and some of his language at least indicates that he spent time on radical far right websites (conscious dreaming, for example).
2. That he was not directed to perform this massacre by a group or organization implies (VERY much like the Hasan case) that he cannot rightly be described as a terrorist (note the hypocrisy in our assessments here), but this does not mean , again, that he was not politically motivated. And, like the Hasan case, he may very well be suffering from mental illness AND culpable for his actions.
3. The possibility that there was a second person (shooter? Something else?) strengthens the possibility that there were political motives in that it implies that this was planned more thoroughly--by a cooperation of two people in agreement about some set of motives, not just one--and that they at least considered one another to be sane enough to complete this objective. Who that second person of interest is will, I think, shed much light on this case--not necessarily a light that suggests a political objective, but this seems highly plausible. After all, Giffords was clearly the primary target. This was not a random shooting. And Loughner had approached her before.
4. What constitutes a political objective is a very important question. But I am willing to go to the mat for this claim: Whether or not Loughner had a specific objective in mind whose longer range consequences are explicitly political--like destroying the Congress or fomenting a revolution--is irrelevant. I think it's enough to call it "political"--as opposed, say, to personal, or aesthetic (for example if he imagined himself the Joker) if his objectives were to send a shock wave of anxiety through our elected representatives--if that was his aim, or to send the message that our representatives are precisely the targets Sarah Palin says they are.
Whatever Loughner's specific aims--however he is or isn't psychologically stable--I think a strong case can be made for the claim that the staggeringly violent, vitriolic, dismissive, arrogant, shrill, ignorant, and woefully disconnected from facts rhetoric of GLENN BECK, SARAH PALIN, MICHELLE BACHMAN, BILL O'REILLY, SEAN HANNITY, RUSH LIMBAUGH, ANN COULTER, JAN BREWER, MIKE HUCKABEE, MITCH O'CONNELL, MICHAEL SAVAGE, and many others almost entirely from the FAR TEA PARTY RIGHT aids, abets, encourages, and condones precisely this kind of explosion.
To be clear, I am NOT arguing for anything like censorship. I am as hawkish about free speech as anyone you'll ever meet--but this crazy fucked up idea that speech is "free"--that it hasn't consequences--is one we MUST rethink. SPEECH HAS CONSEQUENCES. DEATH IS ONE OF THEM. THIS YOUNG MAN MURDERED A NINE YEAR OLD.
Loughner may well be psychologically unstable, but my money is on the claim that even if so, his instability had to be channeled down some avenue of violent rhetoric/ideology/fear-mongering to produce THIS action. In some sense, he too is thus a victim--a victim of a climate where we celebrate the lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance and fascist ideological motives as if that was the meaning of "America."