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The Globe and Mail

America's deadly discourse: Tucson didn't happen in a vacuum

On Monday, when a team of Tucson doctors held a press conference to delicately describe the condition of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords's traumatized brain, one of them said an interesting thing.

Concentrating as doctors do, not on the body politic but on the body before him, he described how the wounded congresswoman was responding to simple commands, and said he found it very hopeful that the "centres of her brain are communicating with one another."

Ms. Giffords, a glowingly ambitious and by all accounts decent public servant, touted by some as "first female president" material, had miraculously survived - so far - a brutal assassination attempt in which a bullet ripped through her head during a shooting rampage Saturday that left a trail of dead and wounded, and shattered even further America's shaky vision of itself.

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Yet the doctor's simple summary seemed apt - because that is what the rest of her countrymen - and indeed people around the world - were doing as well: communicating with one another, in an agonized attempt to fit guns and vitriol, private mental instability and public rage - oh, and don't forget random senselessness - into a workable thesis.

By noon Monday, CNN reported that more than two million Facebook users were hashing it out over the meaning of Tucson, saying they felt "sad" and that maybe this tragedy would finally get people to understand that "words matter."

This one got to us. Political assassination attempts are destabilizing because it is democracy itself that is being attacked. And when the fatalities include, among others, an adorable nine-year-old girl on the cusp of political awareness and a valiant senior who lovingly saved his wife's life by lying on top of her, it only heightens our disgust and sorrow, our deep frustration and our desire to pin the blame, as fast as we can, on just one thing. And even our shame. It just shouldn't be like this.

All mass shootings today involve an almost ritualistic debriefing: wonderment that the alleged perpetrator, in this case a 22-year-old kid, armed with a Glock 9 reloadable gun, had been obviously disturbed for a while but that no one - not his parents, not his school - had successfully addressed his condition. Anger from the left and denial from the right that a crime like this is still - and always - about America's gun problem. (With the added irony that the intended victim, a so-called Blue Dog Democrat, was on record opposing gun control.)

And a growing conviction that all the vicious name calling and heightened hatefulness that is now business as usual in American political life, encouraged by even mainstream media, has to have been a factor.

Of course it was. Even if, or maybe especially if, you are mentally disturbed, why wouldn't such open-season slagging, such vehement insistence that one political party or another is not just wrong in its intentions but destroying the very fabric of civilization, spur you on to commit mayhem? Tucson didn't happen in a vacuum.

There clearly won't be one simple explanation for this tragedy. But that doesn't mean that all these complex issues shouldn't be on the table and held up to harsh scrutiny, especially the "don't retreat, reload" vile political rhetoric of the past few years. Sarah Palin's crosshairs strategy shouldn't be exempt.

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There are other ways to get your points across. Words do matter.

And there were some powerful words out there, like New York Times token conservative Ross Douthat observation that violence in American politics "tends to bubble up from a world that's far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue - a murky landscape where world views get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast."

And more good words from one of his liberal colleagues, Gail Collins, who recounted in her column that at a 2009 "congress on your corner" gathering, hosted by Ms. Giffords, one protester got so worked up that "the pistol he was carrying under his armpit fell out of his holster."

Ms. Giffords, a "spunky Western girl" according to Ms. Collins, apparently brushed this incident off, and astonishingly the man was never detained. Since then, gun control laws in Arizona have gotten even more relaxed.

I also like the words of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, now being excoriated, but who obviously adored Gabrielle Giffords, calling her a "beautiful person," but who bravely said in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that "the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is beginning to be outrageous."

Ms. Giffords's good friend, the Democratic Congresswoman from Florida, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, told CNN Monday that if anyone was going to survive a bullet through the head, it was her feisty friend Gabby.

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I look forward to more optimistic briefings from Ms. Giffords's doctors, and I hope she not only survives but thrives. In true Hollywood fashion, I even imagine the happiest of outcomes, and hope she runs for president one day.

But I pity her for the unspeakable sorrow she will bear for the rest of her life and the question that will haunt her and everyone else: Could this have been prevented? Sadly, I think we already know the answer to that.

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