The events in Tucson this weekend illustrate all too painfully what has become of leadership in America.  The events themselves raise many questions that can and are being debated with (mostly) appropriate vigor.  But what led to the murderous act of Jared Lee Loughner, concerning as it is, is unlikely to produce a clear evaluation of the state of leadership in America.  What will, however, is the careful observation of what comes now: the response of our elected officials.  The early results are not promising.

The conservative Republican response was framed Sunday morning by Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona on Meet the Press, who made three basic claims: this is an act of a lone degenerate; we must not allow him to quell our freedom of speech; and, if we would all just turn our face to God, all will be well. In other words, it’s not our fault, and we must remain both stubborn and righteous.  Shame on you, Mr. Franks.  Demagoguery, however carefully coded, is not leadership.

One thing is known about unstable persons like Mr. Loughner: they are easily led.  In fact, their instability is in itself a cry for leadership.  The good news is they can be led in most any direction – for ill or better. But, we must – all of us – take care to lead, to tip them in the direction of better.  For the most part, leaders today are followers who masquerade as leaders.  They wait to see which way the herd is headed then run fast to get to the front to claim they’re the ones being followed.  This inevitably produces what we see in Congress today and what happened in Tucson on Saturday: a nation at war with itself.

The leadership this country needs now must have the intellect, courage, and moral purpose to move people in new directions; to acknowledge that where we are is dire, where we are going is disastrous, and that what we must do will be as painful as it is necessary.  Running to the front of the herd and spewing demagoguery won’t do it.  Pushing the unstable toward violence is itself culpable. It is time to transcend such foolishness and retire the political jesters who are leading our country closer to the abyss every day.