In the aftermath of Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., there has been much talk about who is to blame for the deaths and mayhem. The media punditry alternately pointed fingers and circled wagons, and the National Rifle Association rolled out its customary defenses. They need not have bothered. The U.S. public now seems somehow to tacitly accept the odd proposition that such occasional bloodletting is the price we pay for “a well-regulated militia.” Conservative commentators initially appeared on the defensive, none more so than the cable television celebrity and governor manquée Sarah Palin, who vigorously rejected any suggestion that the nation’s over-the-top political rhetoric had any role to play in the attack.
Ms. Palin argued that the only person responsible for the violence perpetrated by Jared Loughner was Jared Loughner himself—not the U.S. gun industry, not the N.R.A., not Arizona’s recently diminished mental health services, not you, not me. No; the only responsible party here appears to be a young man afflicted with a serious mental illness, who by all accounts has been drifting further away from reality for months; a young man who was not placed with an accountable mental health authority, was not reported by his family or community or by a college administration that banned him from school because of his erratic behavior; a mentally ill person who was still able to acquire a semi-automatic weapon with an extended magazine. Loughner alone is to blame for the deadly outcome in a Safeway parking lot.
Can we really get off the hook that easily?
Back in the Reagan era, when the nation first discovered the undeserving poor, another catchphrase similarly entered the public lexicon: “personal responsibility.” It is a phrase that has endured much cultural ebb and flow since Reagan was in office, now recovered again to continue its mission of obscuring the communal responsibility we share in this thing we call society.
Yes, Jared Loughner alone pulled the trigger. But the events that brought him to his terrible appointment with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her constituents thread through many lives, including yours and mine. In an over-eager embrace of our predominant culture’s rugged Calvinistic tendencies, thoroughly Americanized Catholics seem to wish away their faith’s communal, collectivist roots.
It is O.K. to avoid those “c” words if they smack too much of socialism for your tastes. Just remember the scriptural challenge voiced by Cain, one we are still required to accept anew. We are our brothers’ keepers, a responsibility we bear personally in our daily works and communally in the policies we promote and the structures we build that allow us to live justly, together, in society. On Jan. 8 in Tucson, we failed in those elementary obligations.
The editors join me in offering our grateful appreciation to George Anderson, S.J., on his retirement from America’s editorial board. Since August 1994 he has offered our readers a distinctive voice with his down-to-earth friendship with the poor and victims of injustice. A former prison chaplain and inner-city pastor, he also possesses a special sensibility for questions of domestic policy and penned many of our editorials on issues from criminal justice to drug policy to migration. At America he was truly our conscience. We will miss him as he returns to parish work.
We also welcome to the editorial board Edward W. Schmidt, S.J., former provincial superior of the Chicago Province of the Jesuits and founding business manager of Company magazine.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.