Matt Bai of the New York Times puts the Arizona shootings into context.

He writes, “Modern America has endured such moments before. The intense ideological clashes of the 1960s, which centered on Communism and civil rights and Vietnam, were marked by a series of assassinations that changed the course of American history, carried out against a televised backdrop of urban riots and self-immolating war protesters. During the culture wars of the 1990s, fought over issues like gun rights and abortion, right-wing extremists killed 168 people in Oklahoma City and terrorized hundreds of others in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park and at abortion clinics in the South.

“What’s different about this moment is the emergence of a political culture — on blogs and Twitter and cable television — that so loudly and readily reinforces the dark visions of political extremists, often for profit or political gain. It wasn’t clear Saturday whether the alleged shooter in Tucson was motivated by any real political philosophy or by voices in his head, or perhaps by both. But it’s hard not to think he was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.”

I’m reminded of a quote that Jon Stewart said near the end of his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear: “We live in hard times, not end times.” The debate rages over the incendiary political rhetoric and whether it had a role in the tragedy in Tucson. But there’s component of this atmosphere: The distortion of fear, which is neither left nor right, but a byproduct of media and entertainment saturation that catastrophe is always looming. This chart is somewhat telling.