Is Arizona About Politics or Mental Illness?

It seems fairly obvious so far that the terrible massacre in Arizona is less about Tea Party politics and more about mental illness, and how the mentally ill gain possession of handguns. This could change radically, of course, in the coming hours and days, if police discover the shooter's Tea Party membership card, or his ACLU card, and indeed, a report is surfacing that the shooter, Jared Loughner, may have had some sort of tie to a group called American Renaissance, a racist self-described think tank. But for now, a man who claims that his favorite books include Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto does not make it easy to categorize him in ideological terms.

 It is probably far easier to categorize him in psychiatric terms. That said, of course it is true that hostile, violent political rhetoric on cable TV and on the Internet provides fodder and comfort to the mentally ill, and it was repulsive to watch yesterday as various figures from the left and the right started spinning this attack in political terms, even as Congresswoman Giffords was still in surgery. I was in airports much of the day and evening yesterday, though, and most of the televisions in various terminals were tuned to football, rather than to the thing that actually matters, so I only caught small snippets of such elevated commentary.

One thought that occurred to me, as I was watching some of the presumptuous commentary: Imagine if the Ft. Hood shooting had been covered the same way as the Giffords shooting? During Ft. Hood, commentators and politicians were falling over themselves to preemptively announce that Nidal Hasan's religious faith had nothing to do with the shooting. In the Arizona case, people are falling over themselves to announce that this has everything to do with the Tea Party. I don't necessarily disagree with those people who tried to distance Nidal Hasan's actions from the broader discussion about anti-American Islamist violence -- he is a deranged person who acted alone, after all -- but it seems presumptuous to draw too many conclusions about the alleged actions of Jared Loughner and what they mean about politics in this country. 

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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