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Crazy Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Dismissing Jared Loughner as crazy silences real discussions we should be having about our society


Before embarking on this discussion, let’s dispense with some of the ridiculous standard faire discourse born from the tragedy in Tucson.

  1. Liberals: Conservatives are not to “blame” for this attack. Loughner was most certainly not a right winger, his ax ground by the extremist Tea Party. It is natural to try to pin a cause to this or any tragedy. But such events are typically the result of multi-causal variables working in just the right way against just the right mentality to inspire tragedy.
  2. Conservatives: You may not be culpable for the attack, but you do share a considerable amount of the responsibility for creating a political environment in which such an event catches nobody by surprise. Yes, both sides pander to rhetorical flourishes, hyperbole and name calling. The conservative rhetoric, however, has been especially polarizing, alienating, exclusionary and eliminationist.
  3. There is every reason to believe that Jared Loughner is a very mentally disturbed individual. As such, there is no objective way to determine his motivation. Whatever incentive he had was the product of an addled confusion of thoughts and perceptions that defy the conventional logic and causative analysis that we might ascribe to a rational actor.
  4. Jared Loughner was not a radical liberal simply because he read Marx, nor was he an extreme conservative because he read Ayn Rand. I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita, that doesn’t mean I’m a Hindu.
  5. Though Loughner is disturbed, his actions cannot and should not be interpreted absent the social and environmental context of today’s society.

I’ve decided to take about a week to contemplate the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others. This shooting was beyond the understanding of most people, by which I could say rational, stable people. Loughner’s actions were, by common understanding, senseless and without provocation. Faced with such a tragedy it is understandable for us to seek a sensible understanding of the event. We want to find the cause. We want a clear explanation as to why a man would take such brutal measures. To do this, we apply our understanding of the world and of society and our place in it—the things that we understand and can grasp—to make sense of an event that is far from sensible. It’s as if human beings have this innate aversion to the random, often chaotic, variables that influence our lives.

Consequently, during times of chaotic tragedy, we often find ourselves grasping and accepting explanations that are often baseless. We jump to conclusions about causality, and confirm our conclusions through reference groups that share our worldviews. These reference groups further shape our understanding of the event. And where there are reference groups in conflict, it is certain that these conclusions will lead to finger-pointing, scapegoating and equal amounts defensiveness and counter claims.

So when a tragedy like the Tucson shooting occur, it’s a good idea for those who really want to understand the event to avoid their trusted reference groups, separate the facts from the impressions and opinions of others, and draw what conclusions can be drawn. It is equally incumbent upon the researcher to accept that a complete understanding cannot be reached with limited data. Some levels of understanding will never be reached, and any conclusions we draw are nothing more than speculation.

For instance, there is only one way to determine the motives of Jared Loughner and that is for Loughner himself to come out and say, “My motives in this shooting were…” Even then, if Loughner is psychotic or schizophrenic or suffering from any other psychological impairment, any direct explanation of his motives will, most likely, be unsatisfying even if it’s intelligible. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon as his lawyer will almost certainly keep any statements by the alleged shooter clamped down tight. Perhaps, as with Timothy McVeigh, we might be able to make some inferences about his motives years from now. It’s likely that these motives will be unsatisfying. For an addled mind, anything could serve as stimulus for violence, from misinterpreting political hyperbole for a literal call to arms to hallucinations of divine voices.

Yet to dismiss Loughner as simply crazy, and therefore an illegitimate locus of social criticism, is missing the larger picture. Jared Loughner and his atrocious actions do speak to us and we can draw some lessons from his irrational actions. For it is safe to say that we are living in unstable and unsettling times. The legitimacy of our social institutions is under question and under fire from very visible sources of critique. All of us are trying to navigate this instability, economic, political and social, the best we can with greater or lesser success. However, if there is one thing that sociologists know, if there is one thing that sociologists can contribute to the discourse, it’s that structure determines behavior.

As a counselor and as a teacher I’ve had experience with this very thing. Take a person and put him in an unstable environment and you will get irrational behavior. Where the norms are weak and the values uncertain behaviors will reflect that instability. So if you take an individual who is already mentally unstable, and further destabilize his life, you can expect an escalation of behavior. This is especially true when the environment dis-empowers the individual, isolates him or, for whatever reason, does not allow for proper integration of the individual.

The New York Times recently ran an in-depth story on the life of Jared Loughner. Reading this story was not much different from the scores of psycho-social evaluations I’ve read on young men and women under my care or tutelage. Here was a young man whose life was defined by strained social integration and bouts of isolation, both voluntary and involuntary. From his community, in which children would consider a ball hit into the Loughner yard as lost, to the army, who rejected Loughner after he failed his psychological exam. From acquaintances and girlfriends to teachers in college, all recognized that he was a troubled young man, and all practiced the same technique for dealing with him…exclusion. Virtually no resources were made available to Loughner to get help, to stabilize his life. Ironically, it was much easier for Jared Loughner to get a gun than it was for him to get help, despite the fact that his state of mind was almost universally recognized as troubled.

Crazy does not happen in a vacuum. What is the cause of Loughner’s mental instability? There’s no way to really answer that question as society and psychology are interacting phenomena. One who is psychologically compromised will find social integration and acceptance more difficult if not impossible. This further exacerbates the psychological problems which, in turn, complicate social integration. Did this downward spiral begin environmentally, genetically, organically? Most likely his mentality was a combination of many elements. Regardless, it is safe to say that the state of our society certainly did not help Loughner and continues to do harm to countless men and women like Loughner in every town and city in the country.

We cannot separate Loughner, who specifically and intentionally targeted a political event, from the trend in threats of violence and acts of vandalism directed at public officials as a whole. This phenomenon is happening while violence as a whole in the United States has troughed after falling for over ten years (as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at left). So there is something about the political climate that is unique, something that the actions of Jared Loughner, regardless of his psychological status, have brought to the open.

And we know this. We can’t hide from it. New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman was the first “pundit” I read on this topic as I respect his status as a social scientist. He asked a very poignant and illuminating question. “When you heard the terrible news from Arizona, were you completely surprised? Or were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?” I know that I was not particularly surprised. So I asked this question of my college students, “How many of you were surprised by the shooting in Tucson?” Not a single hand went up.

Violence in the United States, despite its downward trend in the last generation, is still such an integral part of our society that it really doesn’t shock us. Yes, it repulses us, offends us, but are we really surprised that such things happen in the United States anymore? I don’t believe we are. And that is very telling about the state of our society.

The fact that the target was a political official[s] also didn’t catch us off guard. This is indicated by the immediate response to the shooting. That is the near universal consensus that the “toxic” tenor of our political discourse was somehow to blame for this incident. There’s no way to know if this is true, but the fact that it is the first explanation to come to mind, the first discourse to develop from this tragedy is a social fact with sociological significance.

The focus of this presumed toxicity was also nearly universal—conservative pundits and politicians. Said conservatives, like Sarah Palin, went on the defensive, which one could interpret as a tacit acknowledgement that toxic speech is at least part of the problem. In Palin’s case, while she offered a defense of “passionate” political discourse, she did take down her much criticized “target” website. Why? If such “passion” is defensible, why take down the site in the wake of this tragedy? Why is using rifle scopes and talk of second amendment remedies and eradication only problematic after a political shooting?

And despite claims that liberal commentators were also guilty of such passionate discourse the focus remained on the conservative pundits. Not because they were necessarily wrong. Yes, liberal commentators have used insulting language and questionable discourse in their contests with their conservative peers. This author has not been immune using such rhetoric. Yet, there is something qualitatively different about the conservative end of the discourse. It’s in conservative rhetoric that we hear gun metaphors like “lock and load” and eliminationists rhetoric such as defining liberalism/progressivism as a disease that must be eradicated. Conservatives twist the established history by suggesting that liberalism is fascism, that liberalism is the process by which tyranny is established. Conservative commentators offer that liberalism has been the source of evil throughout history. Evil. Tyranny. Disease. Eradication. These are extreme forms of in-group/out-group discourse that defines political opponents as something more than just individuals with whom one has legitimate political and philosophical differences. In this case the out-group (liberals) are vile, a cancer on our way of life. As such, liberals cannot be compromised with. They cannot be reasoned with. There is nothing left to do but to destroy liberalism, cut it out of the body politic like the cancer that it is.

It cannot be said that there is a similar discourse among the liberal establishment. Even the often angry outbursts of Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz’ descriptions of conservative statements as “psycho talk” do not measure up to the conservative level of eliminationist rhetoric. Of course there are certainly some left wing blogs one could find that offers such rhetoric, but at the level of the established punditocracy such discourse just isn’t there.

So it’s not so much that the conservative discourse is the actual “cause” or motivating factor of the Tucson shooting. It’s the fact that we cannot reasonably separate the two; that our immediate response to the shooting was to look at our political speech is revealing. We know it’s wrong. We know it’s irresponsible. Even if the case cannot be made that an individual act of violence is caused by what we say, or the larger trend of threatening our public figures when they make a decision we don’t like, we at least recognize that there could be a connection. We recognize that maybe, just maybe, we might want to look at how we are saying things beyond the actual message we are trying to send.

If nothing else, we have learned that what we say is only part of the discursive process. There’s an audience out there that we cannot control. Currently there are over a thousand registered users on Mad Sociologist Blog. I’d like to think that all of you are rational and reasonable people, but I don’t know that. With this in mind, I might want to make sure that the rhetoric I use, however passionate, is also responsible. Yes, there’s no way of knowing how my writing will be interpreted, especially by one whose psychology may be impaired. I should not self censor my message, but I should at the very least be responsible about the way I present that message. Just because I may not be culpable in an individual’s atrocious decisions, does not mean I’m off the hook for what I say or write. If nothing else, the Tucson shootings should, at the very least, provide that lesson.

We also have a grave lesson of another troubling calculus of our nation. Crazy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Social instability and an inability or unwillingness to integrate members of the society may exacerbate psychological instability in individuals. But those individuals must live and interact within the very society which makes their condition worse. Case in point…Jared Loughner. By all accounts anyone who interacted with him on a significant level quickly recognized that this was a young man with serious problems. Acquaintances, girlfriends, schools, army recruiters, employers all recognized that there was something wrong. Yet, as it stands, not one of these sources put any effort into getting help for Loughner aside from one school that demanded proof of psychological counseling before they would allow him to return. In some cases, such as his college, the agents’ hands were bureaucratically tied. What about other instances? How many more Jared Loughners are slipping through the cracks?

And how many more Jared Loughners are arming themselves with high tech weaponry? The US army, during time of war, refused to arm Jared Loughner, yet he was able to purchase a Glock with two extra-large clips. Here was a young man, universally recognized as mentally unstable, able to take advantage of some of the most lax gun regulations in the country and gun down twenty people. Might this be an occasion to discuss how we arm our citizens? Raising such questions is not advocacy for banning guns, or overturning the Second Amendment; they are a rational response to what clearly demonstrates a cultural predisposition to violence. When we celebrate a reduction in violent crime to only 1.5 million instances should create pause. When it is easier to get a gun than it is to get a job we have some serious societal problems with our priorities.

So the calculus amounts to this, social instability + social isolation + political polarization + more guns = potential for tragedy.

It’s not wrong to use this moment, and the life and crime of Jared Loughner to add to a reasonable national discussion. It’s not wrong to insist on raising the standards for conducting this important discussion. Dismissing Loughner as crazy will contribute nothing to the very necessary, democratic discussions and will legitimize a status quo which we all know is not good enough for addressing the troubles we face today.


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