The Precious Center

Jared Lee Loughner is crazy. That, more than any other single fact, is to blame for why he walked up to a gathering outside a Tucson Safeway last Saturday and tried to kill Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, murdering six other people in the rampage.

Maybe the toxic political environment influenced him, maybe his copy of “Mein Kampf” did; maybe he did it because Gabby Giffords is Jewish, or because she brushed him off at a long-ago town meeting. (At press time, rumors were swirling that Loughner is Jewish — go figure.) Maybe Jared Lee Loughner hated Mexicans, health care, the Federal Reserve, the letter Q. Until we know more, I’m good with crazy.

But crazy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Crazy has a terroir as sure as grapes do: It grows in a particular soil and is nourished by peculiar waters. A violence-prone American schizophrenic can stew in a culture full of extremist Web sites (we know Loughner enjoyed those) and exterminationist political rhetoric. He can fall through any number of bureaucratic, legal and social-service cracks. Given our health care system, it is a lot easier for someone like Loughner to get 9mm bullets than Clozapine.

It also can’t be a coincidence that Loughner deliberately targeted a politician. We have acquiesced to a political culture that uses the rhetoric of war and destruction in the debate over issues and policy.

In the aftermath of the shooting, pollster Frank Luntz, who knows a thing or two about the uses of rhetoric, said that while blood and guts are not new, what’s happening to our political culture is.

“The truth, is it’s in our culture,” Luntz said. “Go back to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ — our national anthem is about a battle. It’s about rockets blasting in air, bombs going off in air. And so it’s always been a part of who we are — from the American Revolution to the Civil War. But, that said, when push came to shove in politics, as tough as it always was — we always found a way to cooperate. We always found a way to get things done when times were toughest. For the first time, we’re in a situation now where the anger on the right and the left is horrific.”

Luntz cites comments on right- and left-leaning blogs as evidence of rhetoric gone wild. The anonymity the Internet can bring out the monstrous political id in people. We have to regularly scrub’s comments section clean of nasty, threatening ad hominem attacks. At a Jewish Festival in the Valley, a thin, elderly man once approached me with a palsied handshake and said how happy he was to finally meet me. Only later did I realize this was the same man who for a year had ranted online that he’d like to “pound some sense” into me. In person he was as threatening as Don Knotts.

But the anonymous online rants themselves grow out of a larger political culture, one that is set by our politicians, leaders and pundits, and nourished by a 24-hour news cycle that profits from flame-fanning. Inside every frustrated, middle-age, right-wing man is an Ann Coulter waiting to get out. The nastier you are, the more attention you get. The more attention, the more traffic. The more viewers, the more advertisers. Where does it end?

Actually, we know where it can end.

In Israel, in 1995, rhetoric against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reached a fever pitch. Protesters held up posters of Rabin wearing a Nazi SS uniform — the Jewish equivalent of a hunting target. They chanted, “Death to Rabin!” while politicians who sought their support looked on and said nothing.

Eventually, on Nov. 4, 1995, someone pulled the trigger and assassinated Rabin. That’s how it ends. That’s how it always ends.

The person who killed Rabin was not crazy — he is a religious fanatic. We have those types here, too. We have them and the truly unhinged. We have access to guns and deep political divisions on far more issues than in Israel, and toxic rhetoric, and media outlets that profit more from conflict than from consensus. We have politicians and pundits that fan the flames, but they are, as George Orwell once wrote, “always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.”

All these forces pull at what poll after poll shows is still a moderate, centrist mainstream. The real majority in this country is not that silent — you can hear it in the voice of Jon Stewart, on the opinion pages of our best newspapers, in the actions of moderate politicians like Gabrielle Giffords herself.

Each year since 1992, fewer and fewer Americans define themselves at the extremes of the political spectrum, according to Gallup. Only 9 percent call themselves “very conservative,” and 5 percent self-identify as “very liberal.” That means the vast majority of us look at issues the same way we look at food — we may hate beets, but we’ll try them occasionally. We may say we don’t eat meat, but we sometimes like a good steak.

The declining extremes, the precious center, is something our politicians and our media need to support, nourish and protect. If we don’t do that, then we’re the ones who are crazy.