A colleague invoked Robert Frost: "Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance." This is a time of grief, not grievance. The crazed act of a clearly unstable man in Arizona has taken six lives and wounded 14 people, with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords still fighting for survival.
This was an assassination of democracy, an armed assault on citizens gathered to exercise the most precious of American rights - the right to free speech and assembly. Rep. Giffords was doing the essential work of politics, meeting with her neighbors and constituents outside of a grocery store in a "Congress on Your Corner" gathering. This small "d" democratic act is so central to our Constitution and our republic that its protection is enshrined in the First Amendment, the same amendment that Giffords read aloud on the opening day of Congress.
Nothing is more corrosive to democracy than the use of violence to terrorize the public square, to shut down speech, to slay those seeking its exercise. Among the lives so wantonly taken was that of Christina-Taylor Green, a third-grader who had just been elected to her school's student council. She died because of her love for political engagement. Her loss diminishes us all.
The rampage has led, as it should, to a broad indictment of the vitriol and venom on the right that has come to characterize too much of our political dialogue - particularly, since the election of Barack Obama. Arizona has been, as Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik stated, "a mecca for prejudice and bigotry" and a hotbed of Tea Party anger and hatred toward immigrants.
John M. Roll, the chief federal judge of Arizona, killed in the rampage, lived with hundreds of death threats. Talk radio hosts fomented rage over his decision to allow to go forward a lawsuit filed by undocumented immigrants against a rancher. Giffords, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat, was demonized in her reelection campaign as a socialist, a communist, a fascist, a job-killer, a traitor and much more. Her office was vandalized after she voted in favor of Obama's health-care plan. On her Web page, Sarah Palin put Giffords's district in the cross hairs of a gunsight, while Giffords's Republican opponent invited supporters to "shoot a fully automatic M16" with him.
Mendacious and vicious rhetoric is destructive. Honesty, more tolerance and the jettisoning of violent imagery in our politics would be a good thing. Yet it's worth reminding ourselves that passion and vitriol in political disputes are as American as apple pie - with a lineage tracing back to Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Violent rhetoric is deplorable, but we still don't know whether it was responsible for last weekend's horror.
Acts of violence by unstable people happen in all societies. Yet they are more than random acts. The unstable are inflamed - sometimes more than others - by the conditions around them, including a climate of hate and fear and overt (or even implied) appeals to violence.
And we live in a flammable atmosphere. For young people like accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner, a community college dropout apparently rejected by the military, these are brutal times. In an economy where many Americans are struggling simply to keep their heads above water, where poverty is spreading and young people without college educations face bleak futures, fury and depression are certain to spread.
Combine that with a culture awash in violence - from Afghanistan to video games - and then throw in our ridiculous gun laws, which make it easy to purchase rapid-fire weapons and, in too many states, make legal the carrying of concealed guns. The 22-year-old Loughner didn't need a gun to commit an act of violence, but surely easy access to a Glock 19 semi-automatic with an extended clip of 30 bullets exponentially increased the danger he posed to society. Loughner was able to buy the gun legally because the federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. It's time to reinstate it.
Then add the reality that mental illness gets too little treatment in America. Counseling is expensive and often not readily available. Loughner, existing on the margin, was not likely to get treatment for his instability. But consider the veterans of our wars, those scarred by the horrors of conflict who return home to face bleak job prospects. Even they get far too little help for their mental health needs. (It's worth noting that Rep. Giffords fought for expanded mental health benefits for veterans.)
Violence or incitement to violence (see Sharron Angle's talk of using "Second Amendment remedies") has no place in a democracy that needs a robust exchange of ideas. But even while we condemn it, the violent imagery at Palin's Web site should be of less concern than the real cross hairs of guns readily available across the land; the vitriol of politics of less concern than the shrinking opportunities in our economy; the passions of partisans less dangerous than the absence of help for the mentally unstable among us.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.