The US and its Jews now need answers

By David Harris, January 13, 2011

In the wake of the latest paroxysm of violence in America, this time in Tucson, Arizona, endless questions are being asked and rumors are circulating like wildfire, but only fragmentary data is surfacing. In such an environment, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to sort information from misinformation and disinformation.

Here's what we do know. A young man wielding a semi-automatic weapon, purchased legally, killed six people and wounded 14 others at a political gathering. The principal target was the local Member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords, who is widely known as the first elected female Jewish member of the House of Representatives from Arizona. And it is abundantly clear that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, has had a troubled past.

Then there are the questions swirling around the tragedy. Did Loughner target Giffords because she is a Jew, or was it because of her political views on healthcare or on other controversial issues? Or was it rather a function of his mental derangement? Or some combination of factors? Was Loughner influenced by extremist groups, which mix a toxic brew of white racial supremacy and xenophobia? What is to be made of the fact that at one point Loughner mentioned Mein Kampf as one of his favorite books? Is Loughner's mother, in fact, Jewish?

At this point, it is premature, indeed irresponsible, to jump to any conclusions. Perhaps time will sort out the issues and provide answers. For one thing, Loughner is alive and in custody. Perhaps he will talk, but even if he does, can we necessarily believe all that he says? Or can the pieces of the puzzle be put together by prosecutors and investigators?

Meanwhile, the families of the six who perished, including a nine-year-old girl, now face life without their loved ones. And Giffords and the other 13 people wounded are struggling to recover.

I pray for their restored health.
I hope that we will again soon hear Giffords's voice in the Congress and amongst the congregants at her local synagogue. And I trust that America will ask some hard questions, including: Should deadly weapons be so easily available? Why didn't the system intervene earlier when Loughner's behaviour clearly seemed aberrant, even potentially dangerous? And have we allowed differences on policy questions to become so polarised that the demonisation takes the place of democratic deliberation?

For the victims' sake, we need answers. For America's sake, too, we need answers.

David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee and Senior Associate at St Antony's, Oxford

Last updated: 3:30pm, January 13 2011