This is the right question.
Sadly, it’s the one few people are answering in columns and on the radio in recent days. This is an understandable mistake, since the question I’ve asked has only one all-too-obvious answer: Jared Lee Loughner is most to blame.
Since that doesn’t leave much pretext for unending hours of comment and coverage, it’s not the most sale-able question. Hence, the not-quite-articulated one you are hearing and reading a lot about is, “Who else can we blame for the shootings?”
But before we invest time addressing that question, wouldn’t it make sense to estimate its real significance? If the murderer is mostly responsible, then how big is that mostly?
Despite the natural difficulty of quantifying such things, I’ll take a foolish shot at it: 95 percent. I propose that the man who read the political manifestos, attended a Giffords event in 2007, tuned his radio knob, browsed the Internet, nurtured his frustrations, used drugs, acquired a gun, and used it to kill 6 and wound 14 is 95 percent responsible for this tragedy. (I’m including within that 95 percent whatever mental illness, whether biological, chemical, or spiritual, from which he may have suffered, since these things are still “in him.”)
This means that if you put everything else together (gun laws, political climate, inadequate security, talk radio, friends, family, video games, police dereliction, and any other factor you’d care to mention), I contend it amounts to at most 5 percent of the total responsibility for this tragedy. Now 5 percent isn’t zero, to be sure. But if I’m right, then even perfecting that 5 percent to any ideologue’s wildest utopian fantasies would still not have mattered enough to change the outcome.
The frustrating truth is there’s just no clear or workable solution to the fundamental problem of a single, highly-motivated, wicked person in a free society.
But there’s a difficulty with accepting this analysis. Despite its obvious truth, it’s not very satisfying. (And, look, it took me only 300 words to say. How will you sell ad space around such brief analysis?) So if we all know where 95 percent of the answer is, why do we have such a heated national discussion about the other 5 percent right now? It’s simple. We hate to feel powerless.