Early attempts to dissect the life of Jared Loughner, who is accused of shooting to death six people and wounding 13 others at a Tucson political event last weekend, suggest the 22-year-old man is mentally deranged.
He must bear direct responsibility for the consequences of his actions, of course. But there is still reason to ask what this tragedy says about guns and vitriolic political rhetoric in the United States.
The weapon Mr. Loughner allegedly used in Tucson was a semiautomatic Glock 9mm handgun. It's not a hunting or personal-protection weapon, but it is very good at shooting large numbers of bullets quickly.
It appears he obtained the gun legally from a gun store after an instant background check. And he legally concealed it - no permit needed - on his person when he attended the fateful political event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.).
Arizona lawmakers might want to reconsider the wisdom of the state's practically nonexistent gun regulations. And Congress should review its 2004 decision to allow a federal ban on semiautomatic weapons to expire.
It is hard to know what direct effect the tone of recent American political debate had on Mr. Loughner. But too many politicians and political commentators have made skirting the edges of violent speech part of their stock in trade.
And it appears that Mr. Loughner wanted to make a political point.
The result was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives shot through the head and 19 other people - including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl - killed or injured.
As the Washington Post observed, "vitriol has value" in the American marketplace. Reality TV shows aren't about regular families going quietly about their daily lives. No one would watch. But people will watch dysfunctional families the same way they once gawked at circus sideshow acts.
In politics, that often means vilifying opponents. It's not sufficient to disagree with a political rival. He or she has to be wrong, dangerous, and evil. Cross hairs are drawn on targeted congressional districts and talk is peppered with martial references.
Politicians and media have a symbiotic relationship. Both believe the best way to capture the public's attention is through confrontation and oversimplification. Politicians say outrageous things to gain media attention, media outlets highlight these comments to attract public attention, and the public eats it up.
The cycle can be broken. Politicians and commentators can raise the level of debate. Media can refuse to promote or spread incendiary comments. The public can turn off the Keith Olbermanns and Bill O'Reillys, tune out the Rush Limbaughs, and turn the page on newspaper reports that spread violent images.
But none of that is likely. There will be a few days of hand-wringing over the waste of lives in Tucson, denials of personal responsibility, and calls for civility. But then it probably will be back to business as usual. There's a presidential election to win in 2012. That's a sad commentary.
Politicians and talking heads have to recognize that words have consequences - often unintended but never wholly unexpected. The rage people feel over health care, illegal immigration, or terrorism is predictably inflamed by the overheated rhetoric employed by professional agitators.
We don't need laws to curb hateful and hate-inspiring political speech. But people have to be held accountable for the consequences of what they say.
And Americans should turn their backs on politicians and talking heads who trade in incendiary language to further their careers and their political agendas.