This is the right question.
Sadly, it's the one few people are answering in columns and on the radio in recent days. This is an understandable mistake, since the question I've asked has only one all-too-obvious answer: Jarred Lee Loughner is most to blame.
Since that doesn't leave much pretext for unending hours of comment and coverage, it's not the most sale-able question. Hence, the not-quite-articulated one you are hearing and reading a lot about is, "Who else can we blame for the shootings?"
But before we invest time addressing that question, wouldn't it make sense to estimate its real significance? If the murderer is mostly responsible, then how big is that "mostly"?
Despite the natural difficulty of quantifying such things, I'll take a foolish shot at it: 95 percent. I propose that the man who read the political manifestos, attended a Giffords event in 2007, tuned his radio knob, browsed the Internet, nurtured his frustrations, used drugs, acquired a gun, and used it to kill 6 and wound 14 is 95 percent responsible for this tragedy. (I'm including within that 95 percent whatever mental illness, whether biological, chemical, or spiritual, from which he may have suffered, since these things are still "in him.")
This means that if you put everything else together (gun laws, political climate, inadequate security, talk radio, friends, family, video games, police dereliction, and any other factor you'd care to mention), I contend it amounts to at most 5 percent of the total responsibility for this tragedy. Now 5 percent isn't zero, to be sure. But if I'm right, then even perfecting that 5 percent to any ideologue's wildest utopian fantasies would still not have mattered enough to change the outcome.
The frustrating truth is there's just no clear or workable solution to the fundamental problem of a single, highly-motivated, wicked person in a free society.
But there's a difficulty with accepting this analysis. Despite its obvious truth, it's not very satisfying. (And, look, it took me only 300 words to say. How will you sell ad space around such brief analysis?) So if we all know where 95 percent of the answer is, why do we have such a heated national discussion about the other 5 percent right now? It's simple. We hate to feel powerless.
As a Christian, I have no problem saying that evil exists and will continue to cause horrible events in our lives for as long as this world persists. When evil strikes, whether human evil (this case) or natural evil (such as Katrina), I'm not surprised. Nor do I seek an explanation beyond the fact that I live in an ugly world. Evil will continue for the foreseeable future, and I can't ward it off with my very good behavior or my very smart theory. God is in control, and I don't need to be. If He protects me, great. If not, so be it. This was the essence of Jesus's answer to the question about the Galileans Pilate slaughtered in Luke 13:1-5.
But to the secular mind (even when it happens to be in the head of a churchgoer), the most important issue is power. It's vital to have an explanation for tragedies in order to perpetuate the myth that my knowledge is adequate to predict (and therefore control) the universe and protect me from it. So, instead of focusing on the 95 percent truth that this man's actions were well outside my control, I will emphasize how my plan for things would have prevented this, if only others would listen. When they do, it bolsters my terribly fragile sense of my own power, temporarily reinforcing the delusion that I would make a decent deity.
"I can stop murders through gun control." "I can stop murders through video game and television censorship." "I can stop murders through talk radio civility." "I can stop murders through better mental health infrastructure." Or even (think Columbine here, but not this case just yet, oddly), "I can stop murders through holding parents responsible for their children's behavior."
"And if only I talk about these things long enough and loudly enough (to paraphrase the infamous Hitlerism), eventually I'll believe it."
In other words, all the discussion about other causes and targets of blame is really just a con game to distract ourselves from contemplating the disheartening reality of a world we cannot control … and the implications.
However, this is only one of the con games in town. Sure, it's the one most often run by liberals, but they certainly have no monopoly on self-delusion.
With all the recent talk about, well … talk (among other things), you probably didn't notice the other big self-scam. But if you listen to the discussions, you'll hear certain terminology from conservatives used to describe Jarred Loughner, terms like madman, deranged, nut-job, crazy, druggie, anarchist, and lunatic, just to name a few. On occasion, someone might verge on kindness by only calling him unbalanced. (But note that "unbalanced" serves the first con game. "Maybe society's 5 percent is enough to keep him from tipping….")
As I said, you probably didn't even notice, and that's because this seems perfectly normal. He is all of these things, right?
Sure. But why is it so important for us to say so?
Because establishing that Mr. Loughner is somehow distinctly and radically different from me is vital to my belief that I would never do anything like this. And the more often I can reinforce that he is different from me by kind rather than merely by degree, the safer I can feel from the other source of evil in the world: me.
See, we all want to be safe from the evil "out there." But we all also know that there is just as much, if not more, personal danger (guilt, consequences, e.g.) from the evil "in here," a knowledge we bury as deeply as we possibly can. And the biggest shovel conservatives use for digging is their faith in moral rectitude. "I would never do something like that because I am better than he is, more self-controlled than he is, less deranged than he is, etc." Yet isn't, "I never thought I would do anything like this," a proverb among the fallen?
When Jesus tells us that murder begins by hate, He's not saying they're the same. But He is saying they're both on the same road. And if you strip off the veneers of legal deterrence, social control, self-discipline, and God-bribing, none of us are good. We're just well-restrained. And since our sense of personal worth as well as (usually) our sense of entitlement with God depends on believing we really are good, admitting we're not much different from Mr. Loughner is unimaginably threatening. This, too, is a very sophisticated con game we run on ourselves.
So the liberal con says that evil can be stopped by fixing society. Hence, the moral nation-improvement project is the one that counts. "If I get government to be right, things will be better and God will owe us." In contrast, the conservative con says that evil can be stopped by fixing individuals. Hence, the moral self-improvement project is the one that really counts. "If I get you and me to be right, things will be better and God will owe us." But the reality is that you can't end evil. Both the "out-there" kind and the "in-here" kind are way too strong for you.
Realizing this, by the way, is the beginning of seeing the need for a Savior who actually is strong enough to beat both kinds. But I don't want you to get the idea that I think "I can stop murder by getting people to become Christians." I can't stop all evil with my project any more than you can with yours. God controls evil, not me. That being said, I suppose it is worth pre-empting a likely criticism.
"Are you saying that neither social structures nor personal morality should be worked on?"
Not at all. I really believe in these things, both of them, by the way. But believing first in a sovereign God gives me the freedom to admit fixing them won't solve everything or even most of the things. Then I can work on them vigorously, but with realistic expectations. It also gives me the ability in the event of a tragedy like this to avoid the distraction of laying blame and do the most important things: grieve and pray and comfort others.
I can't solve it. I can't prevent it. And I probably can't even completely understand it. Therefore I don't waste very much time trying to do any of these. And if I have one goal in writing this column, it would be to help free you from them so you can do what really matters, too.
Andrew Tallman is the host of The Andrew Tallman Show and a columnist. Andrew's show is heard daily on KPXQ in Phoenix. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: January 18, 2011