We can't blame red herrings for Jan. 8—but we must examine all of the surrounding issues

Let's get one thing out of the way: If you blame the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson on the Tea Party, the Republican Party, talk radio, Fox News, Glock 9-millimeter pistols, extended magazines, the Second Amendment, inadequate gun control, insufficient mental-health-care funding, bad parenting, marijuana, irresponsible friends, detached teachers, lenient law enforcement, a scarcity of armed citizens, inadequate security at public events, or any of a thousand other red herrings that might flop out of the sea, I must respectfully disagree.

I believe that such horrible and inexplicable events cannot be simply finger-pointed or legislated away.

One look at Jared Lee Loughner's profoundly disturbing mug shot—with that crazed twinkle in his eyes and that grotesquely misplaced smile—tells me that he, alone, must shoulder the blame for his actions, regardless of external influences or personal tribulations.

That being said, in no way do I mean to demonize the alleged perpetrator or dismiss the many important issues surrounding his case, including the need for a thorough investigation. People should discuss every aspect of this event, however tangential, and should keep talking about it far into the future. From the somewhat dubious likelihood that the troubled young man had a clear grasp of the moral gravity of his choices, to the various legislative and public-policy proscriptions that might or might not help to prevent such horrors in the future, this conversation should be vigorous, argumentative, passionate and brutally honest—for that is the only way our democratic society can survive.

But for that to work, we must arrest a disturbing trend: Too often lately, our public conversations are not based in fact and do not take place in the context of a common goal of making our society healthier. Instead, much of what passes for public debate consists of calculated lies spread by powerful and wealthy interests for the purpose of manipulating the masses, or hysterical nonsense posted anonymously on comment threads that have come to be dominated by fear-mongering trolls. Such tripe is passively absorbed and reflexively echoed by those who are too befuddled or too lazy to seek the truth and think for themselves. The end result is a shouting match that demonizes, stereotypes, distorts, divides—and ultimately solves nothing. It may not be the cause of mass shootings, but it threatens the integrity of our democratic society.

I first met Gabby Giffords 10 years ago, when I worked for the nonprofit Arizona League of Conservation Voters. We helped her get elected to the Arizona Legislature the old-fashioned way, by knocking on doors and talking to one person at a time about what a great candidate she was. Like so many others, I was immediately taken with her spirited and vibrant idealism. When she went away to Congress, I worried that the Beltway political swamp would douse that flame. At the national level, we've disagreed on some important issues, and we've had some tense meetings that ended in frustration. But when I see her around town, her smile and her warmth are undiminished. She really seems to have maintained her faith in people and in the system, despite the corruption and strife in our political culture. I truly hope that I get the chance to tell her what a tonic that is to an oft-discouraged curmudgeon like me.

Today, Jan. 20, marks the halfway point of President Barack Obama's term. In the next two years, the forces of distortion and manipulation will spend billions of dollars in an effort to fool us into voting against the public interest and in favor of their narrow, self-serving agenda. And we'll hear all sorts of hateful nonsense about Obama, Mexicans, Muslims and any other bogeymen who can effectively be deployed to distract us from an honest debate of the critical issues at hand.

We can best honor the victims of Jan. 8 by raising the voice of truth and compassion whenever we hear such hatred and lies. We mustn't sacrifice the principles that make us whole in the face of threats and challenges. We must be citizens, rather than just consumers, and not let selfish materialism and irrational fears obscure the fact that we Americans live in a paradise compared to most people in this world. We must reject the sad and tragic path of Jared Loughner, who turned inward and lost himself in an artificially constructed reality that bore little resemblance to the world as it is.

Instead, we must do as Gabby has done: Engage, participate, see people as they really are, listen and question with a true heart and a noble purpose, and work hard to overcome the trouble in this world and elevate the common good. We are Americans. But, above all, we are human.