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January 31, 2011

It's just not good enough to say the sole responsibility for the Jan. 9 Arizona massacre rests on one individual. But neither is it fair to use the massacre as an excuse for a witch hunt against every outspoken conservative.

Sarah Palin, the former U.S. vice-presidential candidate, has claimed, "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them."

Not so fast! Would any historian, for example, argue that the rise of Adolph Hitler in 1930s Germany and the heinous actions of his 12 years in power were solely the result of a crazy man and a few crazy followers? That it had nothing to do with Germany's desperate economic situation at the time or with the humiliating defeat the country suffered in the First World War?

Actions have contexts, social contexts. Sometimes those contexts help to stir up already insane people. Acknowledging that doesn't make the context responsible for what follows. But it should force some reflection on the context itself.

In 1989, Marc Lepine shot and killed 12 female engineering students at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. The institution had an affirmative action policy for engineering admissions and Lepine believed he had been denied entry because of it. He blamed "feminists."

Many denied the murders were an attack on the growing place of women in society. Lepine, however, may have been insane but he still had a motive. The murders took place in a context and if the context had been different, those murders may well not have occurred.

Recognizing the context, however, need not lead to a knee-jerk response. We may decide to launch education campaigns to help people deal with new realities or to change laws to prevent some types of behaviour. But we might instead decide any proposed "cures" would create more problems than they solve.

Palin has been criticized for a map on her website showing congressional districts held by Democrats, including Arizona's Gabrielle Giffords, with gunsight crosshairs superimposed. At this point, there is no reason to believe the website is related to the killer's attack.

Even so, Palin could have admitted the website was tasteless and resolved to have done better in the future. However, she apparently sees no social context for any action, good or bad. Society is made up of random individuals whose lives go on oblivious to surrounding social forces.

This attitude is ostrich-headed. Human beings ought to be seen as social animals. Our actions do reflect our interactions with other people and the social environment. Only one person was responsible for pulling the trigger in Tucson. But all of us, in greater or lesser ways, help to create the social environment in which good or evil thrive. The more we recognize that, the more we can take responsibility for creating a healthy social climate.