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Serious Stuff

What the Giffords Shooting Tells Us about Ourselves

by Somebody Else
February 6, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner is basically one of those people that Andy Warhol described when he said that in some not-so-distant future, all of us would be allotted fifteen minutes of fame. Loughner figured that instead of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing something meaningful and worthwhile to human society, he would instead buy a gun and in the space of a minute or two kill and critically injure several people within a group that included Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat.

Thus ended his life as a free man, and thus began his journey down that solitary road that either leads to capital punishment or death after life imprisonment. That was a pretty high price to pay for fifteen minutes of fame, to say the least. But then again, if you look at what is known of this guy's personal history before the murders, it's pretty evident that he had a long track record of decisions that didn't make much sense.

After Sarah Palin's irresponsible postings of crosshairs on maps of districts targeted for Republican takeover for the November 2010 congressional elections, and after a lot of heated and overcharged Tea-Party rhetoric over health reform, it was inevitable that some folks out there would imagine that there might be a connection between the right-wing fury aimed at the Obama administration and the tragic shooting directed against a Democratic congresswoman. But as much as I disagree with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, in all fairness, I cannot assign them any share whatsoever of the blame for what Jared Lee Loughner did.

By all accounts, he did not see himself as a foot soldier for the radically conservative political movement. He detests George Bush as much as Barack Obama. He considers himself neither a Democrat nor a Republican.

No, he committed his horrible deed as a tool and instrument of a completely distinct and separate political agenda, which was one that he himself cooked up on his own by selecting bits and pieces from a number of disparate ideas, some more and some less coherent than others, and then mixing them together with heaping spoonfuls of megalomania and self-engrossed delusional paranoia, and topping it all off with a massive dollop of indecipherable incomprehensibility. The Jared Lee Loughner movement only had one follower, Jared Lee Loughner, and it will never have any other, because, quite frankly, nobody but him can make any sense out of his ideas, and we all have to wonder if he himself has been able to understand them either. We kind of doubt it, actually.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that being patently absurd in your thinking is inherently criminal. Far from it, since most people who hold thoroughly ridiculous and nonsensical views are harmless enough, with fiendishly ambitious politicians excluded, of course. Every day we run across people who are "coo-coo for Coco Puffs," and in most cases we just smile, nod our heads politely, glance at our watches or cell phones, casually remark "Oh, look at the time," and hurry off on the pretext of getting to some urgent appointment or other. And most usually, the eccentrically-minded person drifts off into his or her wonderland of imagined reality, largely or completely forgetting about us until we once again unintentionally pop up on his or her radar screen.

Jared Lee Loughner might have been one of those relatively harmless people, but in the months leading up to his terrible crime, he somehow transitioned from a mentally disturbed misfit who alienated himself from former friends and was unable to function as a student or employee, to a socially disruptive and mentally disturbed menace who violated the basic standards of common courtesy and respect for the small college he briefly attended. This finally culminated in him becoming a criminally insane murderer. How did it happen? We'll never know.

Although we can only speculate as to how he made up his mind to kill innocent people, we can make inferences about his mental state at the time of the shooting by taking a look at his last online posting as a free man:

"Goodbye friends. Please don't be mad at me. The literacy rate is below 5%. I haven't talked to one person who is literate. I want to make it out alive. The longest war in the history of the United States. Goodbye. I'm saddened with the current currency and job employment. I had a bully at school. Thank you. P.S. -- plead the fifth!"

What do these words mean? Well, we could psychoanalyze them for hours and hours on end. We could consider them in light of what is known about his personal history. We could try to make connections between these views and the current political situation in the United States. We could do all that, but please, let's not.

Instead, let's just say this. The young man had completely lost his mind, and had decided to kill people with a gun for reasons only he could comprehend. Sometimes crazy people do crazy things that are harmful to other people. This was one of those tragic and heartbreaking moments, evidently.

What could have been done to prevent this? What is known of Loughner's parents? Was he bullied at school? Did his extended use of psychoactive recreational drugs have anything to do with it? Was he genetically predisposed to go off the deep end as he transitioned from adolescence into early adulthood? Did the toxic political environment provoke him to kill?

These are questions that really tell us more about ourselves than about Loughner. The fact that we ask them reveals our own insecurities about the weaknesses in our society.

We worry that we are inadequate or unfit parents to our children. We worry that school bullying can eventually lead to violent revenge from the victimized, we worry that we have raised our children to be bullies or victims, and we perhaps subconsciously worry that the bullying and victimization in schools mirror the more subtle but just as real bullying and victimization that take place in American adult society. We worry that our young men and women are abusing drugs while we adults are also abusing drugs, such as the legal ones that incessantly pop up on the television as lavishly produced ads. We are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that socially maladjusted people might just be born that way, so we struggle to find some decisive factor that we might control and regulate, so that we can say to ourselves, "If only we had done this or if only we had done that, this tragedy would have never taken place." We worry that our politics have passed the limits of moderation and that something must be done about it before things get out of hand.

The truth is that the conservative movement in the United States has passed beyond the bounds of moderation, and most of us, even those who lean to the right, are able to admit this if we are capable of looking at the situation with some objectivity. It is true that conservatives took a terrible blow to their power base in November of 2008, and that they have been feeling extreme frustration at their loss of political clout since that time. But make no mistake -- the Democratic Party has not completely taken over the government. Conservative political ideology is alive and well and is poised to make a comeback sooner or later. In fact, some might argue that this comeback already began with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in November 2010. But that still hasn't been enough to tone down the hysterical and dangerous language being employed from time to time by certain Tea Party sympathizers holding important political positions or commanding a broad following as popular media figures.

Lest we forget, the historical Tea Party was a precursor to what would become a violent armed uprising against an entrenched and established political power. Let us honestly ask ourselves if we really think that the time has come for the violent, armed, and revolutionary overthrow of the current government because it doesn't agree with our traditional fundamentalist values in certain respects. Is that our idea of justice and truth? Do we feel that a democratically-elected government whose ideas we do not agree with should be brutally taken down? To be fair, the Tea Party as a whole does not explicitly advocate this, but they do indeed flirt with incendiary rhetoric that alludes to such actions, although according to them only in a symbolic manner. Nonetheless, is the current political turmoil really tantamount to the collective unease felt prior to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War?

If we keep playing fast and loose with political rhetoric, we just might find violent symbolism turning into literal reality. And in terms of the number of those affected, that would be even more insane than Jared Lee Loughner's crime, and in the final analysis even more tragic and heartbreaking.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...