The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Arizona: Sick, political or both?

January 9, 2011 |  7:15 am

Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik said he wouldn't have much to say at the press conference regarding the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) and 17 others. Then the 30-year sheriff for the Tucson area unloaded.

Dupnik said it was ridiculous to think that "unstable" individuals like the suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, weren't influenced by the vitriolic rhetoric on talk radio and television. He said unstable individuals could be "more susceptible" than others to hate speech.

Dupnik said he feared that Arizona had "become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry." He later added: "I think we need to do a little soul searching as a country."

Although he said Loughner's motivations remained unknown, the plain-talking sheriff made it clear he thought heated anti-government speech on radio and TV was not helping. Some might "poo poo" that notion, including "those who make a living off of doing it," Dupnik said, before concluding his press conference on this note: “That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences."

The effect of heated commentary in the media became an issue last year when a Northern California man engaged in a gunbattle with the California Highway Patrol.

Byron Williams, 45, reportedly had been on his way last summer to target individuals at the liberal nonprofit group the Tides Foundation and the ACLU when he engaged in the shootout with Highway Patrol officers, according to authorities in Oakland.

The Tides Foundation had been attacked in the media, particularly by Fox News host Glenn Beck. Williams' mother talked about how he had decided to act after he learned on television "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items."

Observers will jump to conclusions about Loughner's motivations based on their political dispositions, but it's wise in these tragic cases to wait until more evidence is in  before trying to draw conclusions about motivations. Even when all the evidence is in, it's difficult to precisely weigh the various influences that prod a sick mind to turn bad thoughts into worse actions.

-- James Rainey