Debate Continues Over Whether Arizona Shooting Sends Message to Rein in 'Vitriol'

Days after the horrific shooting rampage in Arizona that killed six and injured 14 others, blame for the national tragedy continues to be cast -- not just on apparent mental illness -- but instead on everything from Arizona's immigration law, to Sarah Palin, to charged rhetoric in the political arena.

In an e-mail to students and staff at University of California-Berkeley on Monday, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau blamed the shooting that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords squarely on the state's controversial immigration law S.B. 1070 while acknowledging a Jared Lee Loughner was "profoundly disturbed."

"A climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to such a tragedy," the e-mail read. "I believe it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons."

But as details emerge as to exactly what motivated Loughner to allegedly spray gunfire in a crowded supermarket parking lot on Saturday, several told that the mental health of the troubled 22-year-old man likely played a far larger role in the shooting that any outside factor, including heated political discourse.

Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, said that without direct evidence linking Loughner's alleged actions and so-called "vitriol in politics," those claims are "baseless speculation."

"Everyone's desperate to try and draw him into the news cycle, and he just may have been someone beyond all of that and was acting on the devils in his mind," Franc said. "All you can really look at from a distance is: Is there any evidence that public policy and his interpretation of current events seem to be a factor in whatever snippets of evidence uncovered thus far?"

Franc cited Birgeneau's e-mail and a blog posting by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in which he acknowledges no there's no proof that the shooting was "political" while writing that "odds are that it was" as evidence that some reached premature conclusions regarding the shooting.

"It's that desperate desire to fit him into some prearranged view of the world," Franc continued. "All these people with responsible credentials jumped at this as if it were the truth. It's sad that so many people are trying to make sense out of this person so quickly."

Widespread reaction to Saturday's shooting and its immediate politicization is unlike the fallout from the mass shooting at Fort Hood in 2009 in which 13 people were killed and another 30 were wounded, Franc said.

"It's a Rorschach test and people are seeing in it what they want to see," he said. "These moments reveal the core belief systems of the people who decide to start commenting."

Meanwhile, J. Michael Mahoney, an author and schizophrenia researcher, described Loughner as a "walking time bomb" seemingly determined to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible. Whether or not political discourse played a role in Loughner's mind is "definitely inconclusive," he said.

"But people were terrified of him," said Mahoney, who didn't conduct formal research on Loughner. "It's too bad somebody didn't have enough sense to get a hold of him and commit him to getting treatment. Any psychiatrists would agree, I'm quite sure of that."

Mahoney said he's confident Loughner was determined to either kill himself on Saturday or be killed by responding police officers, a parallel to 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that prompted calls by some for stricter gun laws.

"[Loughner] is insane and whatever it took to set him off, nobody's ever going to know," he said. "I doubt he will give his motivations, but all the vitriol going back and forth is not good for anybody really, and especially people who are mentally unbalanced."

Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said he doesn't buy into the "absurd" attempts by some to link Loughner and anti-government rhetoric on behalf of the Republican Party.

"It's a very deranged person who had access to a gun and had a lot of gripes that accounted for this incident," London said. "What we should be looking at is the individual responsible for this dastardly act and why someone like that should have access to a weapon."

In statements released on Monday, the heads of two major media watchdog groups issued statements related to the shooting. David Brock, founder and CEO of Media Matters for America, issued an open letter to News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch asking him to "rein in" Fox News personalities Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, both of whom frequently use "violent and revolutionary rhetoric," according to the letter.

"Since the early days of 2009, I have warned your network and others in the media about the very real dangers of extreme anti-government rhetoric and the stoking of fear," Brock's letter read. "I cautioned against Glenn Beck's proclamation that he was a 'progressive hunter' and his statement that the government was full of vampires before he instructed his viewers to 'drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers.' And against Palin revealing her 2010 'targets' with a map showing gun sights over 20 congressional districts, including that of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, urging followers to not 'Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD.'"

Less than two hours after Brock's letter was posted, Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, said that implicating a "conservative tie" to the shooting is "nothing short of a naked campaign to criminalize conservative thought."

Bozell's statement continued, "All manner of conservatives are being indicted with this evil act, none of whom have any connection to it. Whether it's Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh or anyone else -- they have zero connection to the shooter or his brutality."

During an interview with on Tuesday, Ari Rabin-Havt, executive vice president at Media Matters for America, acknowledged that the exact motivation of Loughner remained unclear but reiterated a call to tone down political discourse.

"But there is certainly a poisonous atmosphere out there right now and I think at this moment, looking at the climate and saying, 'How can we tone down certain rhetoric?' is warranted," he said. "Regardless of this shooting, it's time to think of the results of the climate we're operating in."