A politician got shot in Arizona. The rightwing blogosphere is predictably screaming that "only the one who pulled the trigger is to blame." As always, it's a matter of personal responsibility, as long as it's someone else who's personally responsible.
Political violence is a pretty common feature in many countries. Get too uppity in Russia, and you might have an unfortunate encounter in your podyezd. Assassinations are an occupational hazard in Lebanon. Disappearances are a common feature in many South American republics. Now it's a feature of the American political landscape as well. A looney shooting a Congresswoman is one part of that landscape; the odd assassinations and apparent suicides of lower-level political operatives—John P. Wheeler III, for example—are another.
Political violence requires crazy, desperate, or fanatical people, guns or bombs, and a political climate that dehumanizes opponents, making them enemies, traitors, and subhumans. If you want more political violence, ratchet up the rhetoric against your opponents, provide a nice, simple ideology with straightforward answers, accentuate social problems that drive people to desperation, deprive unstable people of psychiatric care, and provide easy access to lethal weapons. If you want less of it, well, then do something about any or all of these factors.
Of these factors, the rhetorical and ideological ones are the most dangerous. This is because they can slip into a self-reinforcing spiral. Fiery rhetoric feeds fiery rhetoric; hard-line positions cause opposing position to harden as well. If the political actions driven by the ideological positions contribute to the number of crazy, fanatical, or desperate people and the easy availability of lethal weapons, we have a bomb that's virtually impossible to defuse. Cook these ingredients for several years, and structures of organized violence will crystallize out of it. Revolutionary movements with armed and militant wings; underground parties with a Leninist structure; lone operatives connected in loose networks.
I believe that the United States of America has crossed the point of no return, and is now in a long, slow death spiral, which will only end in either in the collapse of civil peace and subsequent dissolution, or its transformation into a corrupt, authoritarian pseudo-democracy on the Russian model. This won't happen all at once; instead, it'll be one shocking and quickly forgotten event after another, one 'security measure' building on another. The process will certainly take years to complete, but the pace is accelerating, and the social and ideological forces driving it are too strong to break. Wealth differentials in the USA are greater than ever, yet a supermajority of the population wants to abolish the 'death tax.'
In the next few years, we're going to see a continuing degradation of civil liberties, as the federal government struggles against the centrifugal forces, while its levers of governance fall into disrepair by being strangled of funding. Political deadlock will make it impossible to address the deficit or reverse the decline of the middle class. Ideological positions both on the left and the right—but more so on the right—will continue to harden. Political divides will become increasingly entrenched as social divides; Democratic-Republican marriages will become as rare as Jewish-Arab marriages in Israel, and will carry the same social stigma. The Tea Party will strengthen its connections with the already existing right-wing militias. The radical anti-globalization Left will organize into its own armed and violent cells. There will be demonstrations turning violent, threats and intimidation by armed, organized groups, more random acts of violence by apparent lone lunatics.
The breakdown of civil peace is always inconceivable until it happens. I've read the Finnish newspapers from 1917 and 1918. I've read up on the slow and in retrospect inexorable process that led to the shocking collapse of 'Switzerland of the Middle East' in 1975. Nobody—almost—saw it coming. Many didn't see it even when it had already started. When that busful of Palestinian civilians got shot up in Ain el-Remmaneh, life went on as normal in the rest of Beirut.
A few years down the line, the fanatics will find a way to use the lunatics for suicidal violence in a systematic way. Intimidation and assassination will become accepted tools of the political trade in Washington, DC, and not at the level of the occasional brick being heaved through an opponent's window like has already happened to Congresswoman Gliffords. We will see an increasing prominence of military figures in political life; ex-generals standing for elections, current generals participating in the political discourse. On the streets, civil peace will start to break down. There will be American equivalents of Russia's Neo-Nazis and Antifascists fighting in the streets, only under different banners. Police forces will be openly taking sides, becoming one more armed gang of thugs among many.
Put another way, America will become a country much like most others; Russia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the People's Republic of China. That's not the end of the world. Living in any of them ain't so bad, as long as you keep your head down. I'm sure many parts of the US will remain quite nice and peaceful too.
You had a good thing going for a while, America. It's a shame you had to fuck it up.