Michael Gerson

This does not have a crude political application. Some liberal critics of polarization have accused their ideological opponents, on the thinnest of circumstantial evidence, of complicity in murder. This is an extreme and ironic symptom of polarization. But outrage on the right should be tempered by the recognition that many conservatives would be capable of hasty judgments under different circumstances. Suppose an unstable leftist loner, with some peripheral ties to ACORN, had shot a Republican congressman. Americans never use the actions of an individual to judge the guilt of a group -- unless it is the tea party, or immigrants, or conservatives, or liberals, or Muslims or fundamentalists, or anyone else who is really, really disliked.

Asserting simplistic political blame in the Arizona killings is a destructive enterprise. But a lack of causation does not mean the event is without meaning. There is inspiration in the examples of those who provided aid, including Daniel Hernandez, as self-possessed as a medic on a battlefield. And there is a warning in the example of Loughner. His views are tinged with madness, but not unrecognizable. They are the distorted reflection of any ideology, of right or left, defined by resentment, conspiracy theories, illusions of persecution and hatred for the other. Loughner lives at the center of this blighted ideological landscape; others, from birthers to truthers, visit its outskirts. It is the place where madness and politics merge.

Among the details to emerge from Arizona is Loughner's list of favorite books. "The Communist Manifesto" and "Mein Kampf" do not surprise. But "To Kill a Mockingbird" is harder to explain. It is a moving depiction of empathy -- the ability to walk in someone else's shoes. Yet Harper Lee is also brutally realistic about human nature -- more realistic than her creation, Atticus Finch.

One hopes that Loughner, with time on his hands, will reread this section: "'He was out of his mind,' said Atticus. 'Don't like to contradict you, Mr. Finch -- wasn't crazy, mean as hell. Low-down skunk with enough liquor in him to make him brave enough to kill children.'" Crazy, mean as hell, or both, this is the achievement of Jared Loughner.

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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