The shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in an attack that left six others dead, was nothing less than an assassination attempt. And while we don't yet know what noxious idea inspired the alleged assailant to kill, we can see in the assault a manifest demonstration of several disturbing trends in American political culture.
Start with guns: Legally, they are sacrosanct. And not just any guns. In Arizona, any "law-abiding" person over 21 is allowed to carry a concealed handgun practically anywhere in the state, including into the state legislature, in bars and on school grounds.
The behaviour by Ms. Giffords' alleged assailant, Jared Lee Loughner, in a college class last summer prompted a fellow student to e-mail the following: "We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon." And yet, Mr. Loughner bought his Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun without incident on Nov. 30, passing an instant criminal background check required by federal law, one of the few legal checks on gun ownership in Arizona.
Politically, guns are flaunted. Midterm election candidates, finding political hay in an angry electorate, bragged of their devotion to guns. Some filmed ads in which they fired their weapons.
The culture has, in short, glorified political attacks. But some go further. To the extremists, politics must be a pre-emptive, offensive response to supposed tyranny.
This has been cooking since shortly after Barack Obama's election. The run-up to his signature achievement, health care reform, was marked by constituency meetings that quickly descended into shouting matches. Former vice-presidential contender Sarah Palin, outraged that 20 Democratic representatives from districts that supported her ticket in 2008 had deigned to vote for reform, launched a campaign called "Take Back The 20." It featured a map with the names and districts of the 20 offending representatives, marked off in gun sights. Ms. Giffords was among those in the crosshairs.
All the while, most politicians and their staff continued the brave act of public service. Ms. Giffords, again, was one. She had been the target of threats, specific ones as well as the general one implied by Ms. Palin's map. On Saturday, she made herself available to her constituents at an event called "Congress on Your Corner." She likely expected an earful. She should not have expected a lethal weapon.