Imagine the following scenario, as if it was being written for a screenplay:
A disturbed young man with a history of odd behavior, drug use and intimidation sits at a computer in a dark bedroom of a suburban American home that has seen better days. Alongside his previous rants against government “mind control” and its “illegal” use of a “second constitution” he posts a photograph he has taken of a prized possession: his semi-automatic Glock 19 handgun. But something about it displeases him. He rifles through a chaotic pile of books, papers, computer accessories, clothing, sneakers, a skateboard, even a dust-gathering saxophone case — looking for something — something only his dangerous mind knows is missing. Finally he discovers a battered, soft-cover book with a shiny, laminated photo cover and throws it to the floor before we can see what it is. He takes the prized weapon out of a drawer, unwrapping the towel that cradles it, and gently places it atop the book. He snaps an image with his cellphone and hastily uploads it. We see the image as it slowly resolves on a computer screen… ominous music begins to swell as its horrific message gradually becomes clearer: a gun, placed on an American history textbook, resting on an image of White House!
Days, perhaps weeks, go by. The man returns to the room. Wearing baggy black canvas work jeans, a dark hoody partially covers his newly-shaved head. He logs on to the MySpace page and types a new message. He is very calm, almost as if he is in a trance. The words resolve on screen in a similar way to the photo, as they are typed:
“Goodbye friends … Please don’t be mad at me.”
This Taxi Driver nightmare world isn’t in the imagination of a (bad) screenwriter somewhere.
With only the slightest poetic license it describes exactly what took place a just a few days prior to the assassination attempt on congresswoman Gabriel Giffords (and the successful assassination of federal judge John Roll) by Jared Lee Loughner. Nineteen people were shot in the attack, six died… including a 9-year-old girl.
That morning Loughner took more photos with his gun, this time with film. He dropped them off at a Walmart under is real name, presumably to be discovered after he was killed. He wears only a red g-string and holds the gun to his crotch and buttocks. It is a near-perfect documentation of his own “insanity.”
Or not. Like the original photo (below), they speak at least 1,000 words:
Is Jared Loughner insane? Perhaps. Can his actions be seen as apolitical? Hardly.
But only two weeks after this brutal attack, the media has told us that this is the only way to look at the abundant evidence otherwise. Even sadder is the fact that this sanitized version of the story is in direct response to pressure from right-wing politicians and pundits who scolded them for “politicizing” a tragedy (and who have an obvious interest in deflecting “blame” from themselves).
How did this happen? More importantly, is it necessary that we continue to discuss these events as if they happened in a political vacuum? Let’s look at what we know so far:
The Blame Game
Immediately after the shooting, social media postings on twitter and Facebook exploded. As a natural response to the shock and confusion around Gifford’s murder (the media had “confirmed” her death… another thing CNN, Reuters, et al, got wrong), people began to search for answers or a “reason” – and many began to wonder what place the current political climate had in this. Sarah Palin’s target map was pointed to as an example; and when it was taken off the internet by Palin’s own people that was seen as an admission of culpability. For a painful half-day ordinary people argued, screamed, accused, attacked and defended each other in the messy, unscripted way that ordinary people do.
This became the second story.
The right (understandably) sprung to its own defense and accused the left and (somehow) the media of “politicizing” the events. The left and the media (understandably) defended its right to discuss the political climate and began to present its arguments with huge disclaimers. Palin recorded a (understandably) widely derided ham-fisted video where she accused the media of “blood libel” against her, despite the fact that no one (save random people on twitter and Facebook) in the media had actually accused her of anything.
And so the first part of the official story slowly resolved on our screens: discussing the political ramifications of assassination was “politicizing” a tragedy, and trying to make sense of Loughner’s rambling political speech was doing the same: only a political opportunist would speculate on the motives of someone who is clearly insane.
The right had effectively shut down the discussion by demanding that the rest of us stop asking questions. And the media obliged, presumably to correct its earlier “mistake” of asking the same questions. And it worked: recent surveys show more than 50% of the public believe the political climate has “nothing to do with” the shootings. This is the ultimate example of right-wing judo against the left. It was extremely effective.
The Political Climate
Several reasons have been given that the political climate had nothing to do with this. As seen above, many have been readily accepted into the mainstream. Loghner’s sanity will be considered below. But consider the others:
It’s Always Been like This
A favorite of the right, especially Palin. The argument is simple: the supposed good old days of less divisive and violent rhetoric never existed anyway. It is a persuasive argument — and it is false.
First I’d ask my readers for ANY example of protestors at presidential appearances carrying firearms dating to before 2008. This was news when it happened in Arizona because it was NEWS. It hadn’t happened before. So that would be different.
Secondly, consider the right’s reaction to violent, revolutionary rhetoric in the past.
Can it honestly be said that Richard Nixon did NOT skillfully exploit the “political climate” of the 60’s into a landslide victory, getting a large portion of the voters to fear a caricatured version of real political speech by groups like Students for a Democratic Society, The Black Panthers, and the Weather Underground? Where conservatives silent on this political rhetoric? Of course not. In many ways it helped foment the rise of conservatism in this country by stoking exaggerated fears of hippies and revolutionaries.
If Abbie Hoffman whined to Walter Cronkite to “stop politicizing” the climate by REPORTING on it, what do you think he would have said? Today the media is terrified of alienating some of its consumers.
Loughner Wasn’t Exposed To Right-Wing Media
This one is really good. Based on an interview with an ex-friend, Loughner didn’t listen to the radio or watch TV. So the “extreme” media that the MSM mistakenly considered as a possible culprit could have never been absorbed by him. This is nonsense.
Loughner had a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and a MySpace page. If he had managed to do all this without getting on the internet, this argument might make some sense. His own taste for conspiracy theories (the Zeitgeist movies are an example) and yes, political discourse (the right is promoting his supposed hatred of George Bush as why he is a “leftist”), make clear how ridiculous this idea is. Until he talks (or FBI records of his internet activity are entered as evidence), there is simply no way to know what he was looking at. But to say with any certainty that he “wasn’t exposed” is absurd.
Finally, even if this obvious contradiction didn’t exist, Loughner was part of a society… friendships (however tortured), school, parents, his attending political events… all these relationships do not exist in a vacuum. To claim that because of Loghner’s mental state he had no idea whatsoever of the political climate in Arizona is to willfully ignore the obvious.
Loughner’s Online Speech Was Apolitical
Again, another very clever, judo-like argument. It goes like this: because Loughner’s ramblings about the government (and reading list) can’t fit neatly into right or left, his writing is therefore non-political. Also, because it is written in such a quirky and opaque way, it can’t be taken seriously as a political viewpoint.
The first point seems almost like a sad mirror OF the current climate; certainly of the “blame game.” It says that if we can’t place him in one or the other warring camps, both groups have to agree that his politics are non-politics. In other words, neither side gets the blame — and the conversation MUST stop there because the politics cannot be important if they do not indict any “side.”
Even a cursory look at his YouTube channel (not to mention the image above) proves otherwise.
A favorited video “America, Your Last Memory in A Terrorist Country” shows a man burning the US Flag (many think it’s Loughner himself). Apolitical? Anarchist, maybe, but hardly apolitical. In the videos he discussed (albeit, in a jumbled manner), the need for a gold-standard currency, the constitutional “illegality” of paying for education, the illegality of the “second constitution” (a phrase common in ultra-conservative circles to refer to the “distortion” of The Constitution by adding amendments after the bill of rights), a warning to reader to distrust the current “illegal” government.
Sure, it’s a mess. But saying these political ramblings, however incoherent, are somehow NOT about politics, is absurd.
Is Loughner Sane?
Finally, the big one. Loughner is clearly insane, or at least deeply disturbed, and therefore whatever political motives he may have had are delusions — or, even better, they were merely a separate and unrelated byproduct of his sickness.
I’m going to leave that determination to his defense attorney. She will, afterall, need to prove that he is not guilty by reason of insanity … and the prosecution will do whatever it can to demonstrate that Loughner is, in fact, sane. I’d venture to guess that most Americans would hope for the latter outcome.
But what can we say now?
The sad truth is that Loghner was “functional” in the sense that he lived with his parents, had some friends, attended school, and lived in a community that was unaware (or at least looked the other way) that his odd behavior and rants were dangerous or a sign of insanity. While multiple witnesses have commented on his “menacing” quality and anti-social outbursts, none of these rose to the level of the involvement of mental health practitioners or legal remedies. Would his parents have been able to keep him under their roof if they thought his sanity was slipping away? Possibly. It’s not possible to know what they thought. But again the media and the right have pieced together these things and already declared a verdict: he is insane.
It’s a very neat package, and one that makes us all feel better about things. But until he’s really looked at by shrinks and lawyers, we cannot know. Saying it is so is therefore a lie.
One last item we are not allowed to consider: the crime itself. Loughner targeted a specifically political event and shot political leaders. He called it an “assassination” in his own writing, found at his home. The idea that this crime is not political deserves far more debate and consideration than it has received.
I wonder how Giffords will look at the media’s white-wash of any trace of political motivation or thought behind her assassination attempt. As her amazing recovery progresses, will she be reassured by the feel-good meme that this supposedly solitary man was completely cut off from any taint of our society and it’s tortured debates? Or will she feel betrayed by our lack of curiosity? And how will she make sense of the idea that this discussion was shut down because it made Sarah Palin uncomfortable?
Let’s be honest here: the official story IS the feel-good story. We are relived of any responsibility we might have as a society or (gasp) as political groups. The shooter is an alien — bearing no relationship to any person we would know or want to know, living in a vacuum of his own delusions. Our fears and guilt are put to rest: he was of no party or group, and he certainly was never one of us.