The pitfalls of generalizing from the particular — what Jared Lee Loughner does and doesn’t tell us about the state of America

Was the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords an historic moment in American politics?

The media frenzy, a presidential response and now a national moment of silence — all join together to suggest that at 10am on January 8, something happened not just in Tuscon, Arizona, but across the whole of America.

I suppose historic moments are by their nature social fabrications, yet some have a palpable authenticity that others lack.

The Tuscon shootings might have provided an opportunity for some national soul searching on the vitriol that now pollutes American political discourse, but it’s a bit premature to conclude that the wider phenomenon and Saturday’s bloodshed can be reduced to cause and effect.

The idle willingness with which the actions of individuals are treated as representations of the character of social groups is no more justifiable when Jared Lee Loughner is instantly tied to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, than it is when Major Nidal Malik Hasan is tied to the American Muslim community. Granted, Palin and others on the right should now have pause to reconsider what kind of language and imagery they use, but in trying to understand why Loughner pulled the trigger it seems just as likely that he was motivated by anticipation of the reaction he would provoke as much as anything else.

At Salon, Laura Miller challenges those who want to read a great deal into Loughner’s reading favorites — books that ranged the gamut from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. She writes:

Loughner is almost certainly insane and, like the countless other mentally disturbed people who send similar ravings to media outlets around the world, his ideas would have been ignored as incoherent and irrelevant if he hadn’t fired a gun into a crowd of people Saturday. The fact that he did fire that gun, however, doesn’t make his delusions suddenly meaningful. It doesn’t make his list of favorite books significant. Crazy people who make headlines and change history are still crazy.

By studying Loughner’s book list for clues to the political leanings that somehow “drove” him to commit murder, commentators are behaving a lot like crazy people themselves. Paranoids are prone to scouring newspaper articles and the monologues of late-night comedians for imaginary coded messages that confirm their “secret knowledge” about the world. But those coded messages aren’t there — it’s just random stuff with no special significance. The truth about mental illness is that it strikes without regard to political affiliation or ideological orientation, and it turns beautiful minds into nonsense factories. We can debate a social order that allows its victims access to firearms and talk about finding better ways to intervene before the minority of mentally disturbed individuals with violent impulses are able to act on those impulses. But trying to find the cause for this disease in politics, ideas or books is just plain nuts.

The willingness of a journalist to glibly write that mental illness “turns beautiful minds into nonsense factories,” says less about the nature of mental illness than it says about the degree to which introspective reflection is undervalued in the contemporary world, fixated as we are on the stuff around us at the expense of our interior life.

It’s easy to marginalize the mentally ill by regarding them as people with broken minds filled with nonsense, but that neither advances a wider understanding of mental illness as it exists within the wild territory of human experience, nor addresses the need to bridge a divide between the mentally ill and the society in which they lack support.

Alienation — which can be described as the feeling of not being heard and of becoming socially invisible — is not a marginal dimension of modern life. On the contrary, the quest for identity in a world where electronic connections increasingly serve as substitutes for physical relationships, is an expression of the degree to which alienation has become so ordinary, universal and normal, that it is also now regarded as natural and thus unworthy of being named.

Mental illness exists on the continuum of alienation and although most people’s experience might not extend so far out on that continuum, those who regard themselves as mentally healthy derive a false comfort in imagining that the Loughners in our world merely reveal the distortions of their own troubled minds and nothing about the world they struggle to inhabit.

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17 thoughts on “The pitfalls of generalizing from the particular — what Jared Lee Loughner does and doesn’t tell us about the state of America

  1. DE Teodoru

    These horrible things do not happen every day. They happen more or less in correlation with a pervasive media or real national character high point, as if that is needed to trigger or permit such brutal shootings to happen. Americans have always seen the gun as the great equalizer and so without it, many feel, there is no democratic masculinity. Armed we dare whereas empty handed we do not. Yet, so far, we see the insane anchoring to some social or cultural anchor of the day and spraying bullets far beyond any specific target. So, when the criminal, the insane and the sociopolitical terrorists are added up, we see ACCESS as the key means to expression of what might otherwise be just dumb mumbling, at most a stupid sign. Since 9/11 even fertilizer is hard to get and there’s little reaction as it might be component of a bomb. But a gun–something you point at persons and effortlessly destroy their lives with, as in a video game– well that’s our highest right as Americans (per those who would block our freedom of speech)….especially as puny Americans who engaging in violence from a point of minimal effort.

  2. Phil Sheehan

    It is the lone maniac who most puzzles us, whose actions we can least understand.

    We may look back in seeming incomprehension at group monstrosities: how could the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide or the slaughter of Philippine Moros or, well, take your pick; how could any of them have happened?

    First step in finding an answer. Suppose that it became the official policy of this country that all Native Americans or all homosexuals were to be evicted from their homes, with their wealth distributed among those who reported them. How long would it take to “cleanse” your neighborhood?

    If you think it would not happen, I suggest you do not know your neighbors.

    Groups of people can be manipulated to insane ends, so long as many are involved. Loners, on the other hand, often respond to their own inner voices, which they alone can hear.

  3. Abracadabra

    “Mental illness” covers a lot of territory. It covers behavior ranging from a hand-washing neurosis to full blown paranoid schizophrenia. But it cannot be used to wash away the actions of this individual or of those whose hate-speech impelled him to it. The Right is using this excuse as a shield from taking responsibility for their own actions. From their point of view “mental illness” explains everything away. In fact “mental illness” explains everything except the most important thing. He chose Giffords and her staff as his targets. Now, why was that? He knew whom he was shooting because he called out Giffords’ name as he did so. He also shot Federal Judge John Rolls who has been the target of a campaign of Right-wing vituperation in Arizona. He knew whom he was shooting because he called out Rolls’ name as he did so. So how come it was these specific people that this shooter targeted? Nothing to do with the Right-wing’s campaign of violent vilification of these two specific people? On, no! Not at all!
    The Right-wing has been flirting with violence for a long time. They flirt with it; try it out. Take violence out for a walk. They want to see how it fits; experiment with it. They want to see how it works. Every year their violence gets a little more open. Their words get a bit more overt. Their campaigns get a little more hateful. But it means nothing; not serious at all. As Hamlet says: “No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”
    Wink-wink, nudge-nudge. The right people are getting the message. Loughner may be a psychopath; but, from the standpoint of the Right, he’s a useful psychopath.

  4. delia ruhe

    I thought that Gary Younge’s article of yesterday nailed it: “The connection between this rhetoric and Saturday’s events are not causal but contextual. The shooter was not likely to be acting under direct instructions but in an atmosphere that made such an attack more likely rather than less. Whatever his motives, this was a targetted act of domestic political violence, and that scenario was not only predictable but widely predicted.”

  5. Christopher Hoare

    Looking from outside the US, I’m most struck by the intensity with which everyone is avoiding context. Insanity is most widely defined as holding a mental image of the world that renders the individual incapable of functioning. Since Loughner was actually functioning, in a very dangerous and successful way, he hardly rates as insane within the context he occupies. (Here one could expand upon the lack of treatment options for the mentally ill and the easy access to lethal weapons for everyone.) He was decidedly eccentric, but if holding unpopular views, or having a different view of reality than the common herd is enough to diagnose insanity, most of the world’s visionaries and discoverers were insane.
    Very early, there surfaced reports of an accomplice, and of a deliberate intention to use his alienation to carry out an assassination. That seems to have been carefully brushed aside, unless I’m reading the wrong reports. As with the numbers of people who have been convicted of terrorism or conspiracy to commit terrorist acts — most holders of non-mainstream opinions (within the US context) have been harmless until encouraged, sometimes by the authorities, to act on what were only speculations. On this count, everyone in society who has advocated assassination or murder of people they hold as political and/or social enemies (and media has been filled with these) is guilty of promoting this crime. They are definitely accessories to this act.

  6. Renfro

    “Alienation — which can be described as the feeling of not being heard and of becoming socially invisible — is not a marginal dimension of modern life. On the contrary, the quest for identity in a world where electronic connections increasingly serve as substitutes for physical relationships, is an expression of the degree to which alienation has become so ordinary, universal and normal, that it is also now regarded as natural and thus unworthy of being named.”…………

    I think that is an important observation.
    I also think “frustration” in general among the public increases the likelihood of violence against their government.
    And what causes public frustration?…not being heard by your government and believing they ignore the people.
    Well, check that one –cause that is the condition we are in now.
    Also the unstable and mentally ill don’t usually live in caves, they are susceptible to what they hear and see even if their brains translate it differently from a so called sane brain.
    So yes, the unstable can be affected by political talk.
    But did political talk make this guy crazy? No , but it might have focused his damage rationality on some political issues.

  7. Frigga Karl

    We are living in a thief’s and murderer’s society. We are killing people from whom we even do not know the name (Iraq) we steal their property (Palestine) sometimes we kill presidents (Kennedy) we even do covert actions (9/11) to get the public consent for all those crimes. And than there is one young man (22) still near to the childhood who get angry with all this corruption in word and in action and does what Sarah Palin does (in words, for the head of Julian Assange) and kill. He just did (without the protection of a state institution) was every one does. Look in the mirror!
    When Charlie Chaplin murdered 6 or 8 women in his film “Monsieur Verdoux” didn’t he say in his plaidoyer “I just killed 6 women, but others (top politicians) are killing millions of men and women(WW II) and they get honor? Is that just? Aren’t Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all those criminals in power much more dangerous than Loughner? Don’t they deserve prison for lifetime? They murdered all over the world. Because of them women are raped, children are orphans and finish as prostitutes. THESE ARE THE REAL CRIMES PROTECTED BY THE STATE! That’s why Loughner killed ! (he is even more courageous, he has no protection in the killing)

  8. DE Teodoru

    The brain is not born a reasonable organ. It becomes reasonable through learning via operant consequences. Thus, I’m mad at you so I attack you. If I were a baboon what I could do to you would be limited by what my hands could do as my teeth only enter into use at a PRE-PROGRAMMED level of rage (usually sexually aroused though testosterone); yet what modern weapons can get us to do requires so little effort that the threshold of rage can be minimal.

    In the end, “maturity” is the development of INHIBITORY circuits “shaping” of what we DON’T do. Insanity is neuropathologic “release” from such learned mental order. That release can also be social and verbal for we are dominated by a verbally acquired logic within social circuits of the amygdala of the brain. We tend to consider a killer “nuts,” yet pin medals on killers in war. The issue is purely context. It is context that PERMITS our behavior. There is no question that the Tea Party movement in its emphasis on GOV “evil” and the role of arms to rectify it, has been PERMISSIVE where internal INHIBITORY circuits would have been otherwise operative. Those who, like David Brooks, insist there’s no connection bear the burden of answering why did he do it NOW to HER and in THAT place specifically? We may never know if Sarah Palin’s target on Cong. Giffords was or was not premise or suggestive, but note that many sites are attributing her killing to the fact that she’s Jewish so many causes remain to be considered in a preventive context. All in all, everyone will exploit this mad man’s act, claiming causation self-servingly. But whether it played a CAUSATIVE role or not, the fact is that the political atmosphere created by the Tea Party is permissive, just as 9/11 motivated many to go and kill Iraqis even when unarmed, women or kids in a “Crusade” for “God and Country.” Even the sane act insane when “enemy” is tagged on someone.

  9. Laurna Tallman

    The left hemisphere of the brain is the seat of reason. Normally, the right ear keeps that hemisphere dominant by processing high-frequency sound to the upper part of the temporal lobe. When the smallest muscle in the body, which is attached to the third bone of hearing, fails, the left brain does not receive sufficient energy from sound to keep it dominant. The result is intermittent or continuous losses of rationality and self-control together with bizarre beliefs, or what we call the spectrum of “mental illness.” That inability of the middle ear to function properly can be measured as audio-processing deficits, but an analysis of behaviour correlates with specific deficits has only begun. Notable in that effort is the work of Dr. Guy Bérard, who defined the audio-processing deficits of suicidal depression (abnormal hearing at 2 and 8 kHz in either ear) and cured 97.7% of his patients with electronically filtered music, usually, within a treatment period of two weeks. Our son, once diagnosed as “hopelessly schizophrenic” reached out for music and ended at least two of his long episodes of schizophrenia by listening to high-frequency music with headphones over an extended period of time. Once I had researched my observations of his behaviour and language during psychosis I was able to explain in neurological terms what schizophrenia is and how and why music healed his. Music has long been associated with the healing of the mind; I have explained how that happens. Mental illness is associated with social marginalization, but it is not caused by a sense of alienation; that feeling is just one of several effects of the dys-integration of the cerebral hemispheres and the awareness of social rejection. You will find at my blog and website further information about the neurology of mental illness and the healing effects of high-frequency sound.

  10. J.T. Waldron

    Gabrielle Giffords Faced Opposition from Local Anti-War, 9/11 Truth Activists

    This is how local antiwar activists in Tucson have viewed Gabrielle Giffords (and her political machine) in the past. We offer our condolences for those who have died, those who were injured, and their families who are left to deal with the aftermath of this horrific tragedy. The fact is there was a lot of opposition to Gifford’s stance regarding the wars, torture and rendition, the patriot act and impeachment of the Bush administration.

  11. Norman

    There are some good points here in the comments! With rare exceptions, the various killings of innocents in the U.S.A. in the 20th & now the 21st centuries, have links to social issues of some sort or another. And as usual, there are the multitude of pundits offering their theories as to why, myself included. When our elected officials allow the rhetoric that has gripped this country the past 20 years, it’s no wonder that these acts occur. The M.S.M. types are all over their selves to label the act. The Think Tank & Wanna be crowd will enter the fray soon enough. Yet, who knows what was the motivation of the shooter at this point? All the present B.S. is just that, B.S.! The ones with the loudest mouths, suddenly are silent, even offering up condolences, where prior to the shooting, their rhetoric was anything but. Time will bring forth a million solutions, but they will never bring those who lost their lives, nor repair the damage that has taken place, just as nothing did for the 9-11 disaster or Oklahoma one either. I wonder how loud the noise would be if the Koch s, the Peterson’s of the country, the Wall Street Titans, the Oracle of Omaha or any other of the ones who have prospered at the expense of those who labor, both in blood, sweat & tears, as the treasure of the country-the enlisted of the Military Services, who today are suffering the stigma of that service, by the very business that have profited from their sacrifice. I can go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

    One last point, one that will bring howls from certain areas of the population, as has been demonstrated, it’s the person-mind-behind the weapon used, not the weapon itself.

  12. Confused and Pondering

    Takes more than waving violent imagry and heated language to incite threats of violence from normally sane people, it takes a plot, a story, to get the job done. Peoples heads have to be filled with something that really scares them. This is being done, but not to incite violence, IMO, but to raise cash.

    The reaction to this is more telling than the act, as it is now clear that there were a lot of people looking to use this as a teachable moment regardless of the details, and not without reason. The “heated rhetoric” is getting all the attention, but largely unaddressed is the underlying source of the concern for violence, the epistomological disconnect from reality that has been allowed to fester in the media, and the exploitation of that from the fringe. Death panels and Birthers and Truthers and others can all find confirmation for their idiocy, from major media, who have largely be come too cowed to plainly call bullshit on much of anything, no matter how silly. Hence, Jon Stewerts broad appeal as a “journalist”.

    This is not simply an incident of reactionary leftist rage. Boehner shut down Congress for a week and implied it is “an attack against all”. Is this appropriate action for the act of one insane person, which it more and more clearly it appears to be? No. It shows how deeply concerned all our politicians have become from the effects of the liberty their fund raisers have taken with the truth, and the danger it poses. It’s not without reason that Newt Gingrich becomes a raving lunatic when he is campaigning. Such behavior has a demonstrated beneficial effect on getting the fringers to crack their wallets and walk to the polls.

    There are plenty who wish to use this as a teachable moment. Good.

  13. Bevy

    I think you nailed it – the whole problem is how to help the mentally ill. My brother is schizo/paranoid (brot on by excessive drug use) and shot my husband to death in 1982. The problem was not TOTALLY my bros paranoia – it was the frustration that my Dad felt with trying to deal with his son’s mental illness and that whole drunken rage that fell on Dad when he tried to fix it. But it was alienation in the 1st degree – it was HORRIBLE. The problem was that we couldn’t get him committed and on his meds consistently and he didn’t like the way he felt on the meds – I can understand him feeling that way … but then to buy a 30.06 that Friday and use it by Saturday is just plain violent … But don’t worry he was found ‘innocent by reason of self-defense’ even though my Trooper husband was NOT shooting at him – my Dad was. Domestic violence is ALWAYS difficult … but when you mix in the mental illness too – it makes it MORE unpredictable – if that’s possible! Anyway, I think part of the problem is HOW to listen to the families of the ppl who are possibly going to act out violently. And I think that our society is NOT doing a good job on that one … I don’t know the answer – but I know we’re not CARING for the mentally ill well – what is it – do unto others as you would have them do unto you? We’re NOT doing that in the U.S.A.

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