10 January 2011

Circling the Wagons: Conservatives & Jared Loughner

It would be nice (but wholly unexpected) if a single prominent conservative politician or media mouthpiece would so much as countenance the possibility that right wing rhetoric is even occasionally a bit out of hand. And it would be even nicer if they would acknowledge that it might be possible that those who are mentally unbalanced might be influenced by extreme rhetoric in dangerous ways.

American conservatives are falling over themselves to insist that Jared Loughner is simply a mentally disturbed individual. They point out that his Internet ramblings were just that, ramblings, and so incoherent. Loughner was not a conservative ideologue.* So, on their account, there is no - literally zero - connection between right wing hyperbole, on the Internet or talk-radio or in electoral campaigns, and Loughner's attempt to shoot his "liberal" Congresswoman to death.

This is a sensitive issue. Loughner did something despicable and criminal. No other description will do. But we do need some sort of explanation. That hardly is the same thing. There is no doubt that Loughner is mentally ill. The question is whether that is a sufficient account. I do not think so. And I think that the willingness of conservative figures in the media, in politics, and among the citizenry to engage in de-humanizing violent rhetoric established a crucial context within which Loughner formulated his plans. It is, after all, simply OK these days to carry your weapon to a political event. Just ask conservatives to say otherwise.

Of course, neither the bigoted, reactionary talk radio jocks, nor lunatic web-page sponsors, nor opportunistic politicos on the right instructed Loughner to do anything. And, of course, it is well beyond the ability of social scientists to establish anything like a specific causal explanation in cases like this. Indeed, social science is not much use in establishing general patterns across apparently similar cases. (Which is not to say that they have not tried; for instance here and here.) But having conceded all that, it seems implausible to suggest, as conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to David Brooks are doing, that there is no connection - none - between conservative rhetoric and Loughner's shooting spree. The impulse is to simply chalk this up to the actions of an insane person, thereby individualizing and depoliticizing the event. While I may be wrong, I think this is unpersuasive. Here is why:
(1) Compare Loughner to Seung-Hui Cho, the mentally disturbed student who opened fire on students, staff and faculty at Virginia Tech in 2007. The differences are instructive. First, Cho reportedly was diagnosed from an early age with a set of specific mental disorders. Nothing I have read thus far - for instance this report in The Guardian - suggests that the same is true of Loughner. Second, Cho did not seek out a political figure to assassinate; he shot up a college campus, presumably because he felt aggrieved by fellow students or his academic environment. By contrast, Jared Loughner hunted his target down and shot her at a political event. Why did he not shoot up the Community College from which he'd been expelled? Why did he not go to the Army recruitment center where he'd been rejected? Why did he not track down any of the myriad right-wing politicians roaming across Arizona? He did none of those things, even though, in the case of the College and the Recruiters, the potential sources of alienation and resentment were clear and proximate.

(2) The right typically falls over itself to take credit when its "message" seems to have influenced people to do this or that - say elect Scott Brown over Martha Coakley. But in this instance they insist that there is simply no possible way that quite specific messages - like Sarah Palin's targeting of Gabrielle Giffords - could have any influence on the thinking or actions of anyone. Palin's advertisement was especially prominent and blatant, but not, I suspect, unique in attacking Giffords during the election last fall. Loughner would not have had to expend much effort (if any) to come into contact with the attacks. Indeed, if he were (as news reports suggest) already predisposed to dislike Giffords, he arguably would've been primed to notice them. Again, this is not to say that there was a vast right-wing conspiracy to induce Jard Loughner to do anything. It is simply to say that vicious attacks using violent language or imagery create a cultural ecology of permissiveness in which violence against ones political opponents might seem acceptable. In my view the right in the U.S. has done just that.**
Those on the right in America love to wax eloquently about the virtues of personal responsibility. In this instance, however, they are running as fast as they might from the notion that they - media types, politicos, street-corner screamers - might have contributed in any way whatsoever to creating an ecology in which violent language has become routinized.

My friend Susan makes the important point that, even if it were warranted, there is little that we might do collectively to rein in vitriolic political language. We can answer back, of course. But there is no call for legal penalties for engaging in political speech. (Although I do not think carrying your side arm to a political meeting or coffee shop or church is a speech act. As such that behavior can and should be regulated tightly.) Susan suggests that what we need is tighter regulation on the purchase and ownership of outrageous weaponry (like the 30 round magazines that turned Loughner's pistol into an assault weapon) that is useful only for shooting people. I agree. But, how many conservatives are lining up to back anything like that? (The lunacy of Arizona's lax gun laws is a topic for another time. Let's just say that an armed citizenry did nothing to prevent the Tuscon shootings, either as a deterrent or in the event.) And Susan prompted me to wonder about something else too. How many conservatives, having depicted the Tuscon shootings as the handiwork of a lunatic, are going to buy a plea of 'Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity" in this instance? Will they be happy if Jared Loughner, madman, ends up not in prison but in a mental institution?
* Does the typical caller to Limbaugh or Beck (or Rachel Maddow, for that matter) have a coherent political ideology? Incoherence on that score hardly differentiates Loughner from most Americans.

** And it is not the case, I suspect, that one can simply say "Well, both sides engage in that sort of rhetoric ... blah, blah." I do not have quantitative data, but am willing to wager that the right engages in violent rhetoric and does so in more prominent venues than do "liberals." Any takers?

P.S.: Updated the next morning ~ You can find Brooks developing his rationalizations and evasions here.

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Blogger Peter said...

Jim, I agree 100 percent that violent rhetoric and images peddled as legitimate political conversation are linked to acts as those committed by Loughner. However, I still don't think they are the whole problem. Yes, they give guidance, an outlet and perhaps even added motivation to individuals like Loughner but even without this "encouragement" we're still left with a paranoid schizophrenic (assessment found in the NY-times) on the loose. I don't think it would be any less tragic if Loughner had shot up the army recruitment office or killed his class mates in college. Moreover, I think that even if we ignore the permissive ecology of vitriolic language the event is not depoliticized. I wonder why Loughner was never diagnosed with a specific mental illness when everybody (including teachers, college administrators, army recruiters, etc.) knew he was nuts and in fact rejected him because of it. Why could he not find or seek help and proper treatment? The level of government retrenchment, the cutting of health and education budgets, and the generally deplorable state of Arizona politics (which was outlined in that Harper's magazine article you posted elsewhere) must be seen as equally responsible. And surely these issues are no less political.

13 January, 2011 07:46  
Blogger Cyranos DeMet said...

What has struck me as odd about this event is the instant and universal assumption insanity is always its' own motive. It would seem to me insanity does nothing more than facilitate the potentials for a malicious entity to directly manipulate the behavior of the mentally ill, essentially using them as a disposable weapons platform.

If the boy went on a shooting spree as a symptom of a disease it is a tragedy, if he went on a shooting spree as a symptom of a disease aggravated by political rhetoric it becomes a travesty of the society which ignores health to practice such politics. But what if the first two conditions only set the stage for a deliberate manipulation of his insanity? Any malicious entity with administrative access to a known-to-be-visited website could provide custom content I suppose it might be called, content structured from real world intel of the weapons' life and (mis)fortunes to be seen by the weapon and only by the weapon to the point of inducing such a rampage almost on demand.

Should anything similar prove true the situation becomes frightening, there are those who have no reservations at all of using people in such a manner. The Mexican drug cartels jump to mind, expanding their tactics in their ongoing border war with the United States. They do have quite a history of shooting judges. I point out the judge was killed, the congresswoman survived. The congresswoman was shot once, but nowhere have I heard how many bullets were used to kill the judge. A point of morbid curiosity I suppose, but somehow if the judge was hit four or five times mid-body, as you would expect from a deliberate assassination attempt while the target he claimed as his own was only hit once? It would make "why" a very interesting question to have answered.

15 January, 2011 18:01  

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