The reports from Tucson on January 8th were ominous. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, along with a federal judge and numerous others, were hosting a meet-and-greet at a local supermarket and were fired upon. In the wake of the attack six were killed and many were injured. The first reports attributed the crime to a dope-smoking lunatic named Jared Loughner. Soon after the culprit was apprehended by local authorities a horrifying mug shot appeared of him with a smile on his face.
In light of the rampages at Columbine, Paducah, the Amish school house in Pennsylvania, the West Virginia Tech massacre, and the shootings at Northern Illinois University, the real tragedy is that these incidents are less surprising than they used to be. What seems to be new, according to George Will, conservative columnist for the Washington Post, is the need to explain the tragedies, make sense out of them, and use them to bring order out of chaos. In his weekly column, Will cites three presidential assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley) and argues that commentators back in those days didn’t need to explain the motivations of the killers. Will attributes this need to the Kennedy-style political left. Nonetheless, Will doesn’t notice that he too is guilty of providing explanations. Although he doesn’t cite the historical record, it is common knowledge that John Wilkes Booth sought to avenge the South’s defeat in the Civil War (Sic semper tryannis was Booth’s explanation as he leaped from the box at Ford’s Theater). Will does explicitly note that Charles Guiteau was a disappointed job seeker and member of the Stalwart political faction. Likewise, Will refers to Leon Czolgosz as an anarchist. These are explanations, and the difference is that there were fewer of them because there was a clear consensus.
This is not to say that Will doesn’t have a point when he states that the explanations are designed to banish the “randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.” My point is that Will is just as human as the people he is criticizing. He too explains when he attributes the violence to randomness, as if luck and fate were the invisible hands of destiny. Even so, the explanation is part of the process of mourning: denial, anger, negotiation, depression and acceptance. What is notable is that these explanations are ideological, which should not be a surprise because explanations are structured the same way as ideologies.
For this reason, Derek Bridges, independent blogger and coordinator of the writers’ group forum in New Orleans, argues convincingly that the current political imagery and lack of civility in political rhetoric has created a climate of hate that causes an unhinged person to act out. This is evidenced by the threats that congresswoman Giffords received, as well as Arizona’s status as a hotbed of political conservatism and anti-immigration sentiments. In contrast, independent writer Pete Moss recalls a double murder in Chicago’s Lakewood-Balmoral District back in 2005. The victims were the husband and mother of a United States district court judge who was overseeing a case against White Supremacists. The community was quick to respond with calls for racial tolerance and peace. When the authorities finally discovered who the killer was, however, it was found that the individual who committed the crimes had no political affiliation whatsoever; it was a revenge killing for an unrelated case. Moss’s point suggests that the explanation may have preceded the event.
Psychiatrists seem to be just as divided about what triggers this type of behavior. Duke University’s Dr. Marvin Swartz contends that environment plays a role. In contrast, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a respected expert on paranoid psychosis, states that the accused is a textbook psychotic and suggests that the arguments about climate amount to a “red herring.” I have to ask: doesn’t this environment/mental illness dichotomy hark back to the age-old nature or nurture argument? I think it might. Each explanation has different logical consequences. If the problem is located in the mental state of the individual, the conclusion should lead us to discuss issues like background checks, and police powers of surveillance and law enforcement. FOX News on Friday morning was recently suggesting that police missed the signs. If the problem is located in the political discourse, the logical conclusion is laws governing speech. Both of these approaches have constitutional implications.
Personally, I am not so convinced that Jarred Loughner is a psychotic. According to some branches of psychoanalysis, a true psychotic lacks the linguistic coherence necessary to elaborate historical trajectories, which are common in ideological thinking. Much like our own attempts to explain away chaos, ideologies serve to provide order and predict outcomes. Loughner, however, does appear to share some of these characteristics, but I am inclined to consider him a pathological narcissist, who can create elaborate historical models —albeit crackpot or Polpot—.
In this regard, I am borrowing much of this thinking from the work of Slajov Zizek, an accomplished social critic and author of numerous books. Zizek takes a psychoanalytical approach to analyze popular film as well as to analyze crimes against humanity. He concludes that the problem is rooted in how the subject sees him or herself. The ideological version of the pathological narcissist will see himself as the tool of History, what Zizek calls the Big Other. However, this Big Other bears the same structure as the Mother figure in the Hitchcock thriller Psycho, the ever-present (transvested) voice of the protagonist Norman that tells him to carry out the Her will. As a result, Zizek’s contention is that trigger is the perverse nature of (this individual’s) nurture.
So, what I am suggesting, for me anyway, might even be scarier than the idea that the environment is the trigger. We can attempt to control the environment by requesting a more civil political discourse, but we should keep in mind that Charles Manson designed his murderous rampage, Helter Skelter, after listening to the Beatles’ White Album. If this portrayal of these killers is accurate, the predictors are less tangible than we would like them to be. Although political rhetoric is uncivil, disrespectful and violent, some can hear it as impassioned language because they don’t suffer from the delusion of having to respond to the Big Other. Maybe this is why Loughner was photographed with that horrendous smirk on his face in his mug shot. Moreover, the photos the killer took of himself posing with a gun, half-naked in a bright red G-string represents his perverse lap dance for History, the Big Other.
In closing, one of the most thoughtful responses to the tragedy was a brief comment that came across my computer screen in the wee hours of the morning. It was someone asking about handgun laws in the US. Frankly, if Loughner had not been able to purchase the Glock with the extended clip, useless for hunting, his rampage would have been much less lethal. While measures like background checks, waiting periods, and restrictions on military-grade weapons, can’t guarantee crimes like this won’t occur again, these would give us a much better problem than the one we have now.