We may never know for certain what prompted Jared Lee Loughner, a troubled 22-year-old college student, to open fire in Tucson, Ariz., on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her supporters, killing six innocent people and seriously injuring Giffords and many more. Easy access to guns facilitated the shooting. This is particularly the case in Arizona, where as one pundit put it, "someone can buy a Glock semi-automatic as if it were a quart of milk." But a profound fear and hatred for government also appears to have provoked Loughner into acting as he did.
The consequences of the events in Tucson are devastating. Yet in a sad commentary on American history, Loughner is hardly unique. From almost the first day the United States was established, there have been far too many Loughners, individuals who have defined "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" according to their own distorted values. Then, instead of protesting peacefully or using their vote to effect positive change, they have opted for violence.
The U.S. has been one of the few, if only, democracies in which so many of its citizens have been excessively suspicious of government as an institution and actively detested the politicians who have led it. As the noted historian Richard Hofstadter wrote many years ago, "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds."
Consider that in 2009, according to the Alabama-based civil rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were more than 500 militia groups covertly operating in the U.S.
"From Idaho to New Jersey and Michigan to Florida," reported the centre's Larry Keller, "men in khaki and camouflage are back in the woods, gathering to practise the paramilitary skills they believe will be needed to fend off the socialistic troops of the 'New World Order.' "
Besides current fears that President Barack Obama -- allegedly a closet socialist who was not born in the country -- is secretly planning to repeal the Second Amendment to forbid Americans to carry guns, another key target of anti-government resentment through the years has been taxes. (Libertarian Frank Chodorov's popular 1952 title summed up this sentiment nicely: The Income Tax: Root of All Evil.)
Once Great Britain had been defeated at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the victorious 13 colonies had the difficult task of creating a system of government. Fear about losing local control, especially to a proposed new central government, was common among the newly established states.
Hence, in the Articles of Confederation, the first attempt to create a constitution, the national government had no executive nor did it possess the power to tax. Another concerted effort was required in 1789 to establish a viable central government, yet its power to impose its authority was challenged immediately.
In a telling example, when President George Washington and his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, passed a federal tax on whiskey in 1791, angry western farmers and distillers not only refused to pay the levy, they also organized a rebel militia and committed acts of mob violence against federal officials.
Matters only got worse after that. In the aftermath of the Civil War, itself partially a backlash against federal power to abolish slavery, the Ku Klux Klan was created to terrorize African-Americans and enforce its own cruel version of justice. More amazing was that in its various reincarnations between 1865 and the 1950s, the KKK's appeal for a "white America" came with a distinct anti-government flavour that appealed to hundreds of thousands of people. In several states during the 1940s and '50s, it was impossible to get elected to public office without Klan support.
Both right and left extremists have challenged the right of the government to govern. In September 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, would-be anarchist Leon Czolgosz (as deeply troubled as Loughner), intent on changing the world, assassinated President William McKinley.
Three decades later, during the Great Depression, one of the most popular and influential figures in the U.S. was Father Charles Coughlin (a transplanted Canadian) who used the radio to champion his narrow views of democracy and morality. He blamed the economic turmoil on "international Jewish financiers" and eventually attacked President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as anti-capitalist.
Similarly, Sen. Joseph McCarthy's "Red scare" during the '50s was contingent upon spreading fear that the federal government was in the hands of communists. Echoing words that could well be expressed today by Sarah Palin and members of the Tea Party, McCarthy declared:
"How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men."
McCarthy eventually disappeared from Washington, but his obsessive mistrust of government lived on. It arose again in a terrible tragedy in the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995 that killed 168 people and injured close to 700. The perpetrators were led by Timothy McVeigh, who wanted revenge on the government for its actions against extremists in Waco, Tex., in 1993 and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, a year earlier.
Like Jared Loughner and others, McVeigh's ideas about life and government were shaped while he was in his early 20s.
"By the time he was in junior high school, an early interest in guns had become an obsession," a profile about him in the Washington Post pointed out a few months after the bombing. "By high school, when he ran track and sold fast food, he was arming himself to fight alone in an apocalyptic war; by age 20, he was making and exploding bombs and shooting guns on a wooded lot that he described to army buddies as a survivalist bunker."
This much seems clear: As long as the U.S. continues to permit its citizens to carry guns and vicious anti-government propaganda is spread, other Timothy McVeighs and Jared Loughners will come forward and the tragedies of Oklahoma City and Tucson will be repeated again and again.