There aren't many things on cable news that can break my heart. The murder of a child is one of them. The shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, along with other people, including a 9-year-old girl, was horrific.
In addition to the sorrow and fury I felt as I watched the footage from Tucson, I experienced dj vu. In 1998, there was a school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark. The shooters were two boys, ages 13 and 11. Five people were killed. I remember the eerie feeling as I watched famous reporters standing in front of a school building I recognized.
I was born in Jonesboro. I left in my early 20s to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson. I might have shopped at the Safeway where shooting occurred. The building and the surrounding landscape certainly looked familiar. I couldn't help feeling that my connection with both places must mean something. It doesn't. It was mere chance, and that is worth thinking about.
After the 1998 atrocity, I addressed a room full of American government students and asked them, What does this event mean? After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, my students began to offer answers. One young man thought it meant that America suffers from a culture of guns and violence. Another student thought it meant that we need stricter gun control. A couple of students thought it meant that America had lost touch with God.
I acknowledged each opinion with respect, but I thought, and I still think, that the Jonesboro shooting didn't mean anything.
More than 300 million people inhabit the United States. As with any large population of animals, there is robust variation among human beings. Some of us are very short and some very tall. Most are in the middle.
The same is true of psychological traits such as mental stability and a tendency toward violence. How many Americans are both capable and disturbed enough to do something truly dreadful? Suppose it's one thousandth of 1 percent. That is about 3,000 people. Let's hope the fraction is smaller. It's real nonetheless.
Bad things are going to happen. Some of them, such as earthquakes, landslides and tornadoes, just don't mean anything. A Lee Harvey Oswald or Timothy McVeigh will occasionally happen. This doesn't mean anything except that, out of several hundred million souls, a few will spontaneously combust under the right conditions. We might be able to reduce our vulnerability, but we can never eliminate it.
Not much has been yet reported about Jared Lee Loughner. He looks to be emotionally isolated. Some of his postings on the Web suggest a fevered and dysfunctional attempt at logic.
It's possible, of course, that Loughner was part of a real conspiracy. That will mean a lot. We want these things to mean something. It's easier on the psyche. It might tell us whom to blame and whom to go after before they can get at us again.
The Tucson atrocity might turn out to have that kind of meaning. Don't count on it. In this big, open society on this planet, bad things sometimes just happen.
Kenneth C. Blanchard Jr. is a professor of political science at Northern State University. His columns appears occasionally in the American News. Write to him at the American News, P.O. Box 4430, Aberdeen, S.D., 57402, or e-mail americannews @aberdeennews.com. The views presented are those of the author and do not represent those of Northern State University.