In his New York Times column, “Climate of Hate,” Paul Krugman writes: “It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.”
Because? Reality is constituted from a complex web of interdependent relationships in which one thing cannot be separated from everything else? Krugman doesn’t really connect the dots and show why Loughner’s violence is inextricably tied to the political climate that is the focus of the column.
The Washington Post, however, provides some background that suggests the gunman’s mind was populated with ideas far removed from the world around him and that his unusual behavior raised grave fears among teachers and classmates.
Referring to his Pima Community College attendance last year, the report said:
A student in the class, Lynda Sorenson, 52, said she was immediately worried about him. She said Loughner sat in class with a crazed-looking grin and she had seen him walking in tight circles, around and around, in the school courtyard. She feared that Loughner might become violent, and she would have to flee – concerns she shared with friends and family in a series of e-mails.
“We do have one student in the class who was disruptive today,” Sorenson wrote on June 1. “He scares me a bit . . . Hopefully he will be out of class very soon, and not come back with an automatic weapon.”
Ten days later, Sorenson was writing about Loughner again: “Class isn’t dull as we have a seriously disturbed student in the class, and they are trying to figure out how to get rid of him before he does something bad.”
Sorenson’s fears grew more acute four days after that, when her e-mail said that “we have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon. Everyone interviewed would say, Yeah, he was in my math class and he was really weird.”
“I sit by the door with my purse handy,” the e-mail continued. “If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast.”
The instructor of the class, Benjamin McGahee was no less concerned. “I always felt, you know, somewhat paranoid,” he said. “When I turned my back to write on the board, I would always turn back quickly – to see if he had a gun.”
McGahee said Loughner disrupted his very first class by yelling, “How can you deny math instead of accepting it?” In later classes, he shouted, listened to his MP3 player and wrote nonsensical answers on his tests. One said “Eat + Sleep + Brush Teeth = Math.”
McGahee said he sought repeatedly for college officials to remove Loughner, but they did not.
“They just said, ‘Well, he hasn’t taken any action to hurt anyone. He hasn’t provoked anybody. He hasn’t brought any weapons to class,’ ” McGahee recalled. ” ‘We’ll just wait until he takes that next step.’ “
Three weeks later Loughner provided the college with what it deemed suitable grounds for action: he publicly denounced the college as “unconstitutional.”
There are two things that are immediately instructive in the college’s action:
- That it needed a pretext for action that it could easily document — Loughner provided that in the form of his YouTube statements.
- That the college’s view of an acceptable “solution” to the problem that Loughner presented was to persuade him to go away. In other words, that he could be turned into someone else’s problem.
Behind these two responses are two broader social trends that have had a highly corrosive effect on American society:
- Where the fear of lawsuits and the coercive effect of social conformity have the combined effect of inhibiting the exercise of individual judgment, those who have the capacity to intervene in situations that demand intervention are more likely to hold back and sidestep the problem. And when they do act, it is with the preference of being able to say, “I had no choice,” rather than to intervene sooner by making a choice which would demand a higher level of personal accountability.
- The assumption that it is easier and cheaper to physically or chemically restrain this society’s most troubled members than it would be to create the conditions in which their minds might heal.
When America dismantled its antiquated institutional psychiatric system, the result was that for many of the most seriously mentally ill there was little adequate community care — the most likely fate for society’s abandoned members became homelessness or prison.
America now incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any country in the world and more than half of those in jail have symptoms or a recent history of mental health problems, according to Human Rights Watch.
As a tragic victim of senseless violence and as a prominent public figure, Gabrielle Giffords has been at the center of a story in which she might be more accurately be viewed as a random victim. The fact that Jared Loughner “specifically targeted” her says far less about the Congresswoman than it says about the condition of the gunman’s mind.
Rather than treat the shootings as a threat to American democracy, we should attend to the fact that dangerous thoughts can’t easily result in devastating consequences in the absence of easily available deadly weapons and that troubled minds won’t heal by being ignored.