Conventional wisdom has settled on a view of Jared Loughner as merely a troubled individual; an undiagnosed schizophrenic with (in hindsight) a long, visible descent into mental illness; a nutcase. Just call him a psycho for convenience. Not a self-appointed foot soldier of the tea party, or unstable acolyte of Sarah Palin. Not someone with a political program that anyone else would recognize as rational or coherent. Early commentary associating the Arizonal killing spree with the Tea Party movement or the tenor of right-wing political rhetoric now looks hasty if not embarrassing. (The same is true for right-wing defenses which noted Das Kapital on his favorite books list and declared him a leftist; though the latter group tends to be immune to embarrassment.) The climate-of-politics angle seems ready to disappear under the rug. See for example David Brooks, the go-to guy if you want to know how Washington elites view an issue. Politics, he says, had nothing to do with the killing spree, but everything to do with the media response (and of course the left is at fault.)
OK, he was just a psycho. And gun rights are beyond question in America, so psychos have access to machine pistols with 31-round magazines. This sorta thing happens, tragically, lets move on. The gun rights crowd, playing defense even though they don't need to, has already started combing the record to see whether Loughner could have or should have been prevented from obtaining the gun he used to shoot a member of Congress in the head and kill six others. In theory, with hindsight, whatever. In practice the psycho will often get the gun, because getting guns is easy, while undiagnosed psychos don't easily find their way into treatment or onto a list until it's too late. As a matter of policy, American psychos will have guns, and we are all on the firing line. The only question is, who will they target? That is where the political angle comes back.
An obvious comparison would be to the Virginia Tech shooter a couple of years ago, another angry young man failing in college and failing in mind at the same time. The students and faculty of Pima Community College, where Loughner was recently suspended, are probably breathing a secret sigh of relief, because typically the target would have been them. But this time the psycho decided his chief tormentor was the local member of Congress. He wanted to create chaos, according to one friend in interviews. Past generations of psychos did that by shooting up a McDonalds, or some other institution of daily life. Create fear in everyone because it could happen anywhere, anytime, to them. Makes sense, in a psycho sort of way. But Loughner thought the best way to create chaos was to kill the local member of Congress. You don't suppose the current political climate had something to do with that? The demonizing of (especially Democrat) politicians; steady talk of riots and revolution due to the failures and growing illegitimacy of government as revealed by the recent financial crisis; etc. Loughner was most likely absorbing all of that in his own irrational way. Psycho thinking is by nature not overly rational or predictable, but psychos take cues from the social milieu. Since the late 20th century, some think they have microchips implanted in their brains, though obviously no one thought that before microchips existed. Somewhere in America there is probably a psycho who watches Glenn Beck and thinks his microchip was implanted by George Soros. The current political climate did not cause Jared Loughner to kill, but it very likely influenced his target.
Members of Congress were keenly aware of the danger posed to them by hateful rhetoric and violent metaphors, flowing mostly from the right wing, even before the Arizona incident. It doesn't matter whether the bullet is fired by a Tea Partier gone rogue or a simple psycho; the current political climate makes them more likely targets. They don't like that. Members of Congress are a privileged class who insulate themselves from the hardships faced by ordinary people. They enjoy gold-plated health care and generous pensions, to free their minds for the difficult work of stripping health care and pensions from every one else. Makes you want to just ... wait, don't go there. Needless to say, they also want exemption from the risk of psycho violence, even though they ultimately control the laws which determine how easily psychos get guns. So now they talk about cooling the tone, and a couple of Democrats actually called for criminalizing or suppressing "inciendiary" speech. Good luck with that. Hard to say if that is just nonsense spouted in a moment of fear; or if they really believe they could muzzle Rush Limbaugh; or if the real target is small-time bloggers and ordinary people posting anonymously on the internet, and the Washington elites think they can exploit the Arizona killing spree in a further bipartisan effort to silence dissent.
The threat of violence against elected officials in the current climate is very real, even if people like David Brooks pretend otherwise. After a quarter century of relative calm, it might even seem like a historic departure and a new crisis weighing down on an already over-burdened America. Actually, it's more like a return to the bad old days. In the period from JFK's assassination to Ronald Reagan's psycho run-in, bullets shaped national politics on a regular basis. Figures across the political spectrum were targets. Now the question will be whether the current threat is bipartisan, or whether it targets Democrats in particular. The Arizona case was "just a psycho" but the next one could be a one-man militia. With just one data point so far, no empirical answer is possible.
A couple of distinctions need to be made. First, between political rhetoric that is merely hateful, overheated, and divisive; and use of actual gun metaphors and imagery -- cross-hairs, second amendment remedies, don't retreat reload, etc -- with an implicit but clear threat of gun violence against the opposition. On the former, you could spend forever trying to count and weigh all the statements made, by whom, where, in what context during the last election cycle. Overall, I think the right wing is much more reliant on the ad hominem shift -- labeling their opponents as not merely misinformed or wrong, but evil people, sick, un-American, traitors. But right wing partisans could respond all day long with anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Regarding the use of actual gun metaphors and imagery, however, the right wing clearly predominates. With a searchable database of everything Barack Obama has ever said, they were able to quickly produce a single example of Obama comparing politics to an armed struggle. But right wingers are stroking their guns all the time.
A second important distinction is between the actual body count that will emerge over the next decade, and the chilling effect that threats of violence have on political life. The actual body count is not likely to grow large enough to satisfy a statistician (one would hope); and if it does, all bets are off. But the chilling effect seems to weigh more on Democrats. Viable candidates will not run for fear of having Republican cross-hairs drawn on their foreheads. Officials already in office will think twice about voting for measures opposed by the right-wing noise machine, for fear of being targeted for death -- oops I mean defeat in the next election. This chilling effect seems to be no accident, and to be an actual part of GOP strategy. Turns out one of their self-appointed foot soldiers was one Turner Haberman, a somewhat nutty 32-year-old trust fund brat from California who threatened to kill Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington State, and his family and friends for good measure. "I hate Jim McDermott. I hate his family. I hate his kids. I hate everybody. … I could round them all up, you know, I could look for them." He did that during the debate over extending Bush tax cuts, a month before the Arizona shooting. Only after Gabrielle Giffords was shot did the FBI decide maybe they better arrest Haberman. After arrest he claimed he was drunk at the time; wouldn't ever really hurt anyone; and only made the telephone calls to try to scare members of Congress into voting to extend the Bush tax cuts. Yes, I know, Haberman was a cell of one, not directly guided or encouraged by any "official" right-wing source. That is how it must be. Candidates, professional operatives, and donors can't make those sort of graphic threats directly because it's illegal (and embarrassing). The program works like this: first you demonize the opposition, say they are Marxist, hate America etc. and then wait for one of your less inhibited followers to do the ugly part.
Not to say that Jared Lougner was part of a GOP script. Psychos can't be scripted. But you make your own luck. Also not to say that every Republican or right-winger is on board with this strategy or takes part in the implementation. Large, smart movements like the American right wing always use a division of labor whereby only a few participants actually do the dirty work. Most are allowed to reap the benefits while remaining oblivious; and a few might even offer up criticism of the strategy as window dressing. (But no candidate will ever be disowned, nor any political operative fired for training figurative gun-sights on the opposition.) Some Republican office holders might genuinely have second thoughts now that the bullets are flying for real. But the hard-core operatives and their financial backers care more about victory than the safety of their front men. Second amendment remedies to big government liberalism will remain on the table until they are clearly seen to turn off voters and lose elections.