Trying to make sense out of Jared Lee Loughner

By now you may have heard about Jared Lee Loughner, the Arizona man accused of shooting Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people at a meet-your-congressperson even in Tuscon Saturday. Besides a slough of community college professors only too eager to talk about how weird he was in class, not much is known about Loughner. Or rather, a ton is known about Jared Lee Loughner, but it doesn’t really fit together. For example, he made this YouTube video. It’s constructed around formal syllogisms in which meaning flickers like those things you see on the periphery of your vision when you’re really tired, but it makes no sense at all. There are references to the Gold Standard and the Constitution, but there are also references to “conscience dreaming” and the US government trying to control the structure of English grammar. It doesn’t really hold together as an ideology, because Jared Loughner is a crazy person. That’s bad news for the people trying to triangulate his actions within contemporary American politics, and there are a lot of them. In the aftermath of his senseless attack, both halves of our fractured national discourse are scrambling to make Jared Loughner a charactering in some narrative they’ve been condemning all along.

Some are doing it less adroitly than others. Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation and simple machine, sent out an email blast on Sunday describing Loughner as a “leftist lunatic” and urging Tea Partiers to describe him as such in conversation, “emphasis on both words.” Some of Loughner’s remarks made reference to the Communist Manifesto, which is apparently evidence enough to confirm what Phillips knew along. “The left is coming and will hit us hard on this,” Phillips wrote. “We need to push back harder with the simple truth.”

Phillips is in possession of what is known as a totalizing theory: he sees virtually every event as an aspect of what liberals do or are going to do. In this sense, he is not alone. Speaking in Abu Dhabi, I-keep-forgetting-that-she’s-Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton described Loughner as an “extremist,” implying that his attack was politically motivated. Other commentators have pointed out his fixations on the Gold Standard and government takeovers to suggest that Loughner was a right-wing fanatic who targeted Giffords for her support of health care reform.

It’s true that Loughner referred to a lot of conservative dog whistles in his videos. He also evoked the 2012 prophecy, cited the impossibility of there being more B.C.E. years as logical proof that there can be no more A.D. years, and claimed that by restructuring the rules of English grammar, people can make “a new currency.”* “The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar,” Loughner says in one video. “You control your English grammar structure.” Here it is instructive to quote the Times:

This is similar to the position of David Wynn Miller, 62, a former tool-and-die welder from Milwaukee who describes himself as a “Plenipotentiary-judge” seeking to correct, through a mathematical formula, what he sees as the erroneous and manipulative use of grammar and language worldwide. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Mr. Miller a conspiracy theorist, some of whose positions have been adopted by militias in general.

Despite his continued retention as a plenipotentiary judge, David Wynn Miller is crazy. Loughner’s ideas coincide with his and were probably influenced by them, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that Loughner is part of some movement that Miller leads. Here we arrive at the crux of the problem: because Jared Lee Loughner is almost certainly mentally ill, his actions coincide with a lot of ideologies without being motivated by them. That’s what crazy is.

Correlation, in other words, is not causation. Ultra right- and left-wing conspiracy theories are crazy, and crazy people are attracted to crazy ideas, but that doesn’t mean that those theories are making people crazy. You can’t say that Jared Loughner was driven to kill by vitriolic political rhetoric any more than you can say he was driven to kill by counting backwards with extremely long numbers. He was driven to do all sorts of crazy stuff, and some of it was connecting grammar to the Federal Reserve and mind control, and some of it was much worse.

The one sensible thing we can take from all this is how much of our political discourse coincides with the statements of crazy people. When Michele Bachmann says that the census might be a government plan to put us in internment camps, it doesn’t make community college students develop schizophrenia. When Sarah Palin put a crosshairs over Gabrielle Giffords’s congressional district, it didn’t make Loughner shoot her. Those are the kinds of things that crazy people do, though, and the sort of narratives that assassinations and random violence fit easily into. That should give us pause.

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  1. It turns out that “the truth is not as interesting as you want it to be” is actually damned interesting. And true.

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