Michael Gerson
WASHINGTON -- When President John Kennedy visited Dallas in November 1963, he was greeted by a full-page newspaper ad accusing him of being a communist fellow traveler. To his wife he observed, "Oh, you know, we're headed into nut country today." The city, according to historian William Manchester, was a "mecca" for "the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies."

In the hours following Kennedy's assassination, aides assumed a right-wing radical was responsible. When Robert Kennedy informed Jacqueline about Lee Harvey Oswald's leftist background, she felt sick. "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights," she said. "It's -- it had to be some silly little communist." Eventually, the Warren Commission found no direct connection between Kennedy's assassination and the city's "general atmosphere of hate."

It is a natural human desire to invest tragedy with meaning, to make grief coherent. Manchester, who chronicled JFK's final day, concluded, "If you put the murdered president of the United States on one side of the scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the president's death with meaning."

The killings in Arizona deserve to have a meaning. The first assassination attempt on a female federal officeholder. The shooting of a respected federal judge. The murder of a girl born on a day known for death, Sept. 11, 2001. We want these lives and all the others to be balanced by something weightier than Jared Loughner.

A killer such as John Wilkes Booth represented a conspiracy and a cause. He was shot to repudiate an idea. A would-be assassin such as John Hinckley symbolizes little more than the sad incapacity of a single mind. Based on current evidence, Loughner more closely resembles Hinckley. Yet he is different in some respects. The alleged Arizona killer shows signs of psychosis. But he also seems to have contributed to his own corruption by dabbling in moral nihilism, conspiracy theories and other drugs. In the absence of organic disease, it is possible for a man or woman to gradually destroy their character and conscience. The voice in Loughner's head may have been his own.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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