Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner, Politics, and Philosophy

More than four years ago, I made a prediction about "the next big American assassination." I'm not sure that the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords falls into the category I was considering (since she was not known nationally before the incident), but I think it's worth revisiting my prediction, which I would qualify as partially correct. My thesis was that in the West, where entertainment is pondered more than ideology, where the passionate defense of ideology is often considered aberrant (i.e. "weird"), and where power is thought to reside moreso in a cultural zeitgeist than with specific agents, the next assassin would be somebody attempting to seek fame rather than someone attempting to exert an ideological agenda.

That said, last spring I explored the concept of the death threat, and came to the conclusion that those who threaten violence care greatly about ideology, though they are not going to actually act. Or, as I said at the time: "I'm going to kill you" is code for "I have very strong feelings about something you said or did, but I do not have the language to accurately or eloquently convey the depth of my feeling, and even if I could express my thoughts in a worthwhile manner, I have a deep-seated insecurity about my power to affect my external environment, so I will exact what small measure of control I can and attempt to terrorize your psyche." It's worth noting that in a climate last spring where Giffords put out a statement condemning death threats received by an Arizona colleague, she never received one from Jared Lee Loughner. But in a twist of extreme irony, one of his victims was arrested at a Town Hall meeting for making a death threat against a Tea Party member. In short, I'm convinced that the people who make death threats and the people who attempt to kill other people are two distinct classes of individuals--and the ones in the latter camp are not all that interested in legislative agendas.

But of course, when one attempts to kill a politician, it seems logical to assume that the motivation is political. If the assailant were looking to just instigate random violence, why wait until a congresswoman shows up at a supermarket to start shooting? So in the immediate wake of the shootings, and to some extent even now, the national dialogue has been about discourse and civility. And this hysteria has reminded me some of the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shootings, where the "right vs. left" dynamic echoed the "jocks vs. outcasts" dichotomy posited by pundits at the time, where "incivility" instead of "bullying" was tagged as a cause of violence, Tea Party members take on the role that "goths" played back then, and Marilyn Manson is reborn as Sarah Palin (perhaps the first time these two individuals have been cast in the same light).

But what we should have learned from Columbine is that almost everything we thought we knew about that incident, as reported in the immediate aftermath, was wrong. We've likewise received information about Jared Lee Loughner over the last week that at the very least complicates initial reports. Like Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, he left a bit of an electronic footprint. And many of his former friends and acquaintances have come forth with accounts and anecdotes that perhaps give insight into his mindset.

Much has been made of his reading list (his Myspace list of "favorite books")--published accounts usually mention Marx and Hitler, while others notice a disproportionate number of dystopian novels. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center observed "an anti-government thread runs through all those works." Andrew Sullivan argues that "paranoia" is a common theme in his reading list.

But I haven't seen much made of the presence of Lewis Carroll's two Alice in Wonderland books on his list. Consider the question that he posed to Giffords at a past town hall meeting that allegedly set him on his path to violence when he received an answer that was not to his satisfaction: "What is government if words have no meaning?" Then consider what Humpty Dumpty said to Alice:

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't β€” till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean β€” neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master β€” that's all.'

This would seem to fit with Loughner's alleged belief that government was controlling language, and through language, controlling reality. Although Loughner's belief system has (rightly) been characterized as bizarre, the central tenants that language creates reality and that reality is subjective are both accepted aspects of poststructralism, the dominant philosophy in academia today.
And though Loughner's many syllogisms aren't exactly logical, given these premises, it's not too outlandish to assume that one would seek to create their own version of reality-- as Loughner seems to suggest he does in stating "I'm a sleepwalker--who turns off the alarm clock."

But why target a politician? Why not just exist blissfully in one's own reality? Perhaps because even in the mind of a psychotic, there is something unsettling about being told that words do have meaning, that there is a government, and that one must conform to someone else's idea of order and reality. Furthermore, according to Mother Jones, one of Loughner's former friends offered an interesting insight into his possible motivation:

Tierney has been trying to figure out why Loughner did what he allegedly did. "More chaos, maybe," he says. "I think the reason he did it was mainly to just promote chaos. He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that." Tierney thinks that Loughner's mindset was like the Joker in the most recent Batman movie: "He f---- things up to f--- s--- up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: 'Another Saturday, going to go get groceries'β€”to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in."

So if this is at all true (and it is worth pointing out here that this is all speculation), it would seem that my prediction was mostly correct--that Loughner was looking for fame ("he wanted the media to freak out"), and though he was ideologically driven, his ideology was far from mainstream political discourse---even as it was uncomfortably close to mainstream philosophical discourse.


Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

I think it's only natural to try to come up with some sort of explanation to wrap our minds around an incomprehensible act -- blame it on bullying, heated rhetoric, a desire to create chaos, or whatever theory you can devise. But I wonder if we're all just giving way too much credit to someone who's clearly a psychopath. It might all just come down to brain chemicals.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Teecycle Tim said...


9:24 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home