In the still-churning wake of the Tucson, Ariz., slaughter, it is easy to come to a mistaken conclusion.
That the target was a member of the United States House of Representatives, 40-year-old Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, makes the story an instant headline. She was severely wounded with a bullet to the brain. The extent of the wound’s physical and mental damage will come slowly to a concerned nation.
Six people were killed. Among them: U.S. District Judge John Roll, 9-year-old Christina Green, Giffords’ 30-year-old aide Gabe Zimmerman, and three victims in their 70s — Dorothy Morris, Dorwin Stoddard, and Phyllis Schneck. Nineteen others were wounded.
And then we have the 22-year-old man who created the national havoc.
Add them all up and you have news stories and analyses for weeks, and books telling us what it all means for years to come.
The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, might have told us himself, in a disjointed way, what this is all about.
The United Press International’s analysis of Loughner’s YouTube posting three weeks ago reported he said, "If you call me a terrorist, then the argument to call me a terrorist is ad hominem."
"Ad hominem" is Latin for an argument directed against a person rather than the person’s arguments. It means "to the man." It also means "appealing to prejudice or passions; illogical."
The same week of the shooting spree, Dr. Douglas Fields wrote in The Huffington Post about how toxic environments can form in a "disrespectful, stressful social environment" that acts "as a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent." It’s a warning that all that talk about putting political adversaries in the "cross hairs" and Second Amendment retribution at political events is not simply blather and bluster, but brainwashing with a poison gas made of words that pollute the social environment.
We have seen this in hate crimes. Now we see it as democratocide.
Fields reports that human brains develop largely after we are born and are nurtured by the environment mostly during the first two decades of life. Environment and experiences determine how individuals’ brains, including Loughner’s, are wired. Modern brain imaging can show brain damage "as clearly as a bone fracture on an X-ray," he says.
Harvard Medical School brain imaging studies by Martin Teicher show that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults.
A 2006 study showed that parental verbal abuse was even more strongly associated with detrimental effects on brain development than was parental physical abuse. A study published in July says exposure to verbal abuse from peers is associated with elevated psychiatric symptoms and corpus callosum abnormalities (connecting the left and right sides of the brain).
So what effect does one think the elevated smack-talk, denigration, belittling, uncouth taunting in Arizona (not the exclusive site of such ethnic hostility) might have?
The next time we hear our leaders dismiss the putrid political environment as simply a lack of civility, realize that somebody is not thinking hard enough. Science gives us serious evidence of brain damage potential shot through toxic words and deeds, wounding just as clearly as the bullet that hit Gabrielle Giffords.
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service.