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Columns - Did toxic words trigger Tucson killer?

It might be impossible to prove beyond a doubt, but it is almost certainly likely that toxic words have helped push some deranged people over the edge into murder.

We live in a time when political compromise and civility have become relics worthy of museums. Political debate, too often, has become one big shouting match, which can turn into sessions of accusatory screaming. Who can forget the town-hall meetings at which angry attendees shrieked insults and screamed down senators and representatives? The same thing happened in the angry 1960s when newfangled leftists and old-hat right-wingers shouted each other down and used toxic rhetoric, some of which triggered assaults and even killings. Lee Harvey Oswald, to name just one assassin, is a classic case of a disgruntled loner-loser infected by half-baked ideas and toxic extremist rhetoric.

The vicious January 8 shooting spree in Tucson has raised once again that eternal question: Do words trigger violence?

Specifically, did poisonous political rhetoric "cause" the Tucson massacre? Absolutely not. The vicious killer, Jared Lee Loughner, did it.

Did poisonous political rhetoric "contribute" to the Tucson massacre? Probably not, but who really knows? The demented maniac would probably have done what he did even if there were no political poisons circulating in the air. More needs to be learned about the killer and the twisted ideas that formed his warped mind. Perhaps he is suffering from a severe mental illness, and "voices" told him to kill Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and anyone in her vicinity, including a 9-year-old girl. So far, based on excerpts from his computer ramblings, his thought processes are disjointed and incoherent, not to mention utterly ridiculous.

Loughner seems to fit to a tee the profile of other massacre shooters: somewhat of a loner, trouble in school, rejection by the military, a feeling of being unappreciated, thoughts that everyone else is keeping him from his "rightful" successes in life and - most disturbingly - a crazy patchwork quilt of thoughts that combine - in ludicrous fashion - "evil" governmental forces, the country's monetary system and conspiracy theories that politicians are out to "get" the little guy.

This profile almost perfectly fits that of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building. One of McVeigh's "inspirations" was the militia-survival movement and a crackpot book called The Turner Diaries.

We are told two of Loughner's favorite books are Mein Kampf (My Struggle) by Adolf Hitler and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. That choice of books could well be a symptom of his crazy-quilt ideas, trying to combine discordant theories, like oil and water, into a coherent "philosophy." Just as McVeigh rationalized his violent act through his intense identification with the survivalist movement, we have to wonder if Loughner found his rationale partly by following the website ramblings of extremist groups.

It is a tragedy these killers - and other random murderers - did not receive the mental treatment they so needed before they cracked up completely into their homicidal actions. Our society has to begin working on that problem - the ticking time bombs that go unrecognized and/or untreated.

In the meantime, the onslaughts of vitriolic political vomit that "hint" at doing physical harm to opponents has got to stop. Sarah Palin's phrase "Don't retreat; reload" and her website rifle-scope cross-hairs over the districts of political opponents were inexcusable. Those are just a couple of obvious examples. There are many others - extremist groups of every political stripe putting out a "call to arms," thus hinting at violent aggression or even murder as a "solution." All those groups claim, of course, they don't mean it that way. Sure. Just go tell that to the next madman ready to explode into a shooting spree.

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at