Once again America is shocked by tragedy involving a deranged man and a gun. Once again there are no ready answers to comfort those whose loved ones were lost or to console a nation that professes to abhor such violence.
Saturday's shooting near Tucson, Ariz., though, was different from previous incidents and, perhaps, worse.
The target was U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was doing her duty, meeting with the public -- on a weekend, outside a supermarket, where residents could share their views with her in the natural and easy setting of their own community.
Enter Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old who had been suspended from his community college in September; who apparently had posted videos on the Internet that spoke of alienation, confusion and aberrant political views; and who was armed with a semiautomatic Glock pistol. He opened fire, shooting the Democratic congresswoman in the head at close range. As of Sunday evening, six were dead and 14 were injured, including Ms. Giffords, who was in critical condition. Among the dead were U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, who was born in Pittsburgh; Gabe Zimmerman, one of the congresswoman's aides; and Christina Taylor Green, a 9-year-old who was a member of her school's student council and who went to the event because of her interest in government.
What made this rampage worse than others was the pall it cast over the freedom and ability to perform elected public service -- the necessity for political officials to interact openly with their constituents, the need for the public to approach freely the people they send to office. Whatever his intent, Jared Lee Loughner and the rounds he fired took aim on this American form of democratic discourse and, in so doing, put a treasured right of all citizens in jeopardy.
When investigators executed a search warrant at Mr. Loughner's home, they found an envelope with messages saying, "I planned ahead," "My assassination" and the name "Giffords." His YouTube videos contained rambling and incoherent passages, some of them about his becoming the treasurer of a new currency, his belief that he had powers of mind control and the need to fix "English grammar structure" in a congressional district he believed was mostly illiterate.
Newly installed Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, was right Saturday when he said "an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve." He postponed for a week the regular schedule of the House and said members might take legislative action regarding Saturday's events. The security needs of federal lawmakers is worth discussing.
This also would be a good time for public officials, not to mention the public, to consider the role that political vitriol, name-calling and polarization play in pushing the unstable to commit such violent acts. For instance, does calling a duly elected president a "Marxist" bent on tyranny incite someone who is living on the edge? Does Sarah Palin's use of crosshairs over a map of the districts where she would like to see House members defeated for re-election make light of gun use?
It is also worth examining, as we've said so many times before, the easy access to firearms that Americans have -- firepower that is freely marketed and legally purchased, then used later to take innocent lives in a moment of peak anger.
The Tucson shootings follow an all-too-familiar pattern. How to prevent them from happening again leaves Americans with an all-too-familiar sense of doubt and uncertainty. This much is clear: too many have met senseless deaths at the end of a madman's gun. It is time for the leaders of this country to say, "Enough!"