I admit I've fallen for Gabby. I had never heard of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords before the attempt on her life last Saturday morning in Tucson, but now I am, like so many Americans, pulling for her desperately. She rides motorcycles. She married an astronaut. She's only 40 years old, for Christ's sake. I cling to news of her recovery (she opened her eyes! she dangled her legs over the side of her hospital bed!) as though willing her to get well so that she can -- what? Return to Congress with renewed passion and go on to become the first female President...?
Gabby was shot in the head at close range. Even if she recovers as miraculously as everyone hopes, she’s unlikely to return to her old life in politics. And yet I can’t help wanting it for her. In a very short amount of time, I’ve come to identify with her deeply and to see in her all sorts of significance and possibility. Possibility that a seemingly deranged gunman may well have taken away.
So it’s somewhat startling that Greg Downs, a fiction writer and history professor at City College in New York, thinks I have something in common with Jared Loughner, her alleged shooter. Startling, but spot-on:
The way Loughner approached politics was actually not as idiosyncratic as we would like to think, even if it was much more extreme. Loughner’s attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seems likely to have been spurred not by her ideological commitments nor by her cultural values nor by her actions in regard to any project in Loughner’s backyard, but instead to a fleeting moment of personal interaction in which, in Loughner’s skewed view, Giffords failed to engage with him.
Although most people do not erupt into murderous rages, many Americans do think about politics in these very intimate ways, as exchanges between individuals, and those exchanges are often imaginative, even fantastic, among people who otherwise seem rational and sane.
What Downs says makes even more sense in the context of a story heard on NPR this morning, about a 1999 Secret Service study of assassins and would-be assassins. Yet another reminder of the ever-personal nature of politics.
Yes, Loughner was likely mentally ill. All the more reason we should strive to understand his behavior on all fronts – clinical, cultural, et cetera – rather than dismissing his rampage as the inexplicable action of a lunatic. Maybe this is what people really meant when they blamed our "toxic" political climate: that Jared Loughner is more like us than we'd otherwise like to admit.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream