So what was it all about, this week when the eyes of the nation turned to Tucson? Was it about some terrible liberal over-reaction, blaming the tea party for the bloodshed out front of the Safeway supermarket? Not really, and not for long. For the first day or so, before anyone knew anything about the shooter, a couple of commentators may have said something like that, but they quickly retreated. Keith Olbermann even apologized.
So what was it all about, this week when the eyes of the nation turned to Tucson, Ariz.?
Was it about some terrible liberal over-reaction, blaming the tea party for the bloodshed out front of the Safeway supermarket?
Not really, and not for long. For the first day or so, before anyone knew anything about the shooter, a couple of commentators may have said something like that, but they quickly retreated. Keith Olbermann even apologized.
But as with some other liberal blunders, this one was inflated and perpetuated for days and days by conservative commentators who seem to protest too much. When a prominent liberal says something stupid, the echo is louder than the original sound.
It's understandable to assume that when a politician is shot, at a political event, politics must have had something to do with it. Even now that it appears Jared Lee Loughner's politics were incomprehensible at best, it's hard to keep politics out of it. I'm surprised at how often I see health care reform coming up in the discussion of a shooting spree in Arizona. Did Loughner have a position on "Obamacare"?
The consensus now seems to be that Loughner's attack had nothing to do with politics. I can't say the same for the reaction to it.
Was it about Sarah Palin? Well, these days everything is about Sarah Palin. Her map with vulnerable Democrats' districts in the crosshairs inspired the attack - except that it didn't. Then she made it about herself again with an especially poorly timed video - released the day of the memorial service - in which she protested entirely too much.
Showing either ignorance or insensitivity, she compared the criticism of her with "blood libel," which is a specific historical lie told by anti-Semitic Europeans who charged Jews with killing Christian children for their rituals. I'm pretty sure this is the first time that charge has been leveled at a former Alaska governor.
But it's not about Sarah Palin.
It's not about Barack Obama either, though in today's politics it seems that everything that isn't about Sarah Palin is about Barack Obama. In cases like this, presidents are expected to strike a soothing, unifying tone, and Obama did just that Wednesday in Tucson.
But that's unlikely to change much about the polarization that surrounds this president. Nor will it change the 2012 political equation, or at least it shouldn't. We can't avoid the subject, though, because to some people, everything is about politics. That's part of America's problem.
Was it about mental illness? Loughner was obviously a disturbed and dangerous young man who apparently had not received the professional treatment he needed. But he's not alone. The peak incidence of such mental illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression is between the ages of 18 and 24.
Mental illness is a legitimate part of this story, but will any improvement in access to treatment come from this tragedy? I wouldn't bet on it. Actually, the health care reform bill includes provisions strengthening earlier "mental health parity" legislation. It would improve access and require insurers to inform clients - including, for instance, Loughner's parents - that mental health services will be covered. But people don't want Obamacare, we're constantly told.
Was it about gun control? You'd think Americans could agree that it's a problem when someone as disturbed as Loughner can so easily get his hands on lethal weaponry. But those who raise that issue, even proposing modest reforms like reviving the ban on extra-capacity magazines for handguns like the one Loughner used, are shouted down by the gun lobby.
Was it about incivility? Not really, as far as we can see into Loughner's twisted mind. Obama conceded as much at the Tucson memorial service.
"If, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy - it did not - but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud."
That memorial service put a spotlight on what this week's events in Tucson were really about, if only briefly: The 20 individuals whose lives were taken or shattered by the mad act of a disturbed man. A Congress member. A judge. Two congressional aides. Several retirees. A girl born the same day as the attacks of 9/11.
The rest is just talk. And half the people talking, it seems, are telling the other half they shouldn't talk about some issue or another.
But talk we must, about ugly rhetoric, about access to mental health care, about gun control and about politics. We rush to judgment every time, eager to use the latest headline, however tragic, to advance our arguments.
It would be nice if we could do better. If only America's loudest and most opinionated voices could honor those killed or wounded by listening to each other more carefully, by toning down our rhetoric and focusing on what brings us together instead of what drives us apart.
Nice, but unlikely. That makes a week that started out on a sad note even more sadly.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.