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The Arizona Shooting: An FAQ

1. Whose fault is this?

Good question! Allow me to respond:

And also, right now, it looks like it is the fault of the alleged shooter — against whom there is, can I tell you, just a LOT of evidence — Jared Loughner.

2. But that guy was crazy, right? I mean, his YouTube videos make no sense. And also, he shot people! You shoot people, you have GOT to be crazy.

No, you don’t. There are several entire groups of people trained to shoot other people, in specific circumstances, and lots of them even have to pass psych screenings before they get the job. We call them “the police” and “soldiers.” Pulling the trigger on a gun is a very simple action that can be performed by anyone, regardless of his or her mental health or even his or her mental state.

Now, deciding when to pull the trigger of a gun: That’s more complicated. So let’s discuss murder. Because you would be surprised, what influences someone’s ability or willingness to murder another person. I was looking this up, for a piece, a while ago, and murder (at least in New York) goes up during the summer. Do you know why? More people are drunk. And the heat irritates them. And that’s really it: The police say that, basically, people are outside at barbecues, or just hanging out, and they’re having some frosty beers because of the heat, and they get enough frosty beers in them, and they start beefing, and then because everybody’s pre-irritated and not thinking clearly due to frosty beers, it doesn’t stay a purely verbal beef. Somebody gets murdered. Murder also happens more often (again, this is New York) around the holidays. Because people are unhappy, and stressed out, and (again) they get drunk more often. There are a ton of things that make murder more likely! People are more likely to commit murder if they happen to be dudes! People are more likely to be murdered if they happen to be dudes! Women are more likely to get murdered if they’re pregnant, apparently! Murder is weird!

You know what doesn’t really influence someone’s ability or willingness to murder another person, though? Having schizophrenia, which is what they’re saying Jared Loughner probably has. It actually, totally does not raise the stakes in any real way. Some schizophrenics do kill people, but they are a fraction of the many, many, many totally non-schizophrenic people who commit murder or otherwise shoot people in this world. And as Jill at Feministe points out, even schizophrenics who do shoot people are influenced by things outside of being schizophrenic, including what they hear from the culture around them.

So, to sum up: Lots of people with severe mental illnesses never shoot anyone. Lots of people without severe mental illnesses do shoot people, for lots of reasons. “Because he’s crazy” actually doesn’t make sense or change the conversation in any real way.

2. Ah, but I am quite confident that Jared Loughner was crazy! For, you see, I have known A Mentally Ill Person.

I see. Did that person murder you?

3. Uh… no????

Okay then. For a second, I was worried that you were a mystical typing ghost. So, let’s move on.

4. But, okay. Jared Loughner definitely bears some responsibility, right? I mean, no-one put the gun in his hand or forced him to pull the trigger. But people are dead,  and people are hurt, and it really looks like Jared Loughner shot them. And he was definitely not in the right frame of mind when he did it. We can all agree on that.

Sure can!

5. So why blame the Tea Party for Jared Loughner?

Because, no matter what frame of mind he was in, he was demonstrably influenced by some right-wing rhetoric. “Federalist laws” were mentioned in one of his YouTube videos. Also, “a currency backed by gold,” which is (a) straight from Ayn Rand, who he apparently read and liked — We the Living is among his favorite books, though that’s as scattered and weird as any “favorites” list, and especially any weird dude’s “favorites” list, and it includes Ayn Rand next to The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf and then just straight-up Peter Pan, because even murderers cannot resist some childlike whimsy — and (b) in line with Tea Party rhetoric.

Actually, to go back to that “favorite books” list, what it demonstrates most clearly is not that Jared Loughner is mentally ill, but that Jared Loughner is stupid. The things he likes are not just varied, but in direct opposition to each other — Ayn Rand and Marxism, Hitler and Harper Lee.  Or, for that matter, The Communist Manifesto and noted anti-Communist manifesto Animal Farm. (Well, obviously, Orwell’s message was more nuanced than that. But when they sit you down and tell you to read it in school, it is The Book Where Communism’s Bad, and if we assume that Loughner read this with the same level of insight that he read everything else, he probably didn’t have a terribly nuanced perspective on Orwell’s various condemnations and parallels.) He didn’t understand any text fully enough to see that, if he “liked” one, he should note its direct contradictions of the other text. He was stupid enough to think he agreed with all of them. And he showed the decisive stupid-dude tendency to list only “great” or “classic” books: He doesn’t read for fun, this guy, he doesn’t have taste per se, he reads to convince you that he’s smart and that he reads Great Books, but the books he reads are only the books that even non-readers know about. There aren’t many contemporary authors, even trendy ones; there’s nothing even slightly obscure. The only surprise is that he didn’t include War and Peace. Or Shakespeare. (For example: If he’s really interested in linguistics and grammar as social structure and the meaning of words, where’s Derrida? That’s not even hard to find out about, really. Derrida is super-famous, and you don’t even have to understand it to say that you’re into it.) Scanning a “favorites” list to get a sense of whether you want to know somebody is a much-derided but instinctive skill of my generation. And anyone who’s ever met a date through Facebook or OKCupid or whatever can verify: These are all classic hallmarks that someone is extremely damn stupid.

So here’s this guy. He’s stupid. He fancies himself a revolutionary of some kind. Ayn Rand and The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf are all vaguely understandable, by a stupid dude, as endorsing violence in order to re-shape society. He clearly wants to be perceived as important, in terms of this very vague revolution, and in general terms. He doesn’t like “control.” He doesn’t like “the government.” And which popular movement, in his time and place, is advocating less government, opposition of the current government, and even violent gun-based overthrow of the government?

The Tea Party.

6. But they didn’t mean it! They didn’t mean he should get out a gun and shoot politicians! And Sarah Palin’s aide said those were surveyors’ marks, on that map!

That was after she herself called them “bullseyes.”

And Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is not alone in this. “Lock and load,” “reload,” the bullseyes: Those were some pretty clear endorsements of guns, right there. But we also have “Second Amendment remedies,” from Sharron Angle. And we have Giffords’ opponent, rallying opposition against her with an event in which people were encouraged to shoot guns at a target.

The Tea Party has been operating on some very gun-focused rhetoric from the first; I have only seen one or two marches, in New York City, but in Ohio, I got to see the signs on people’s lawns. I come from a very small, chummy, politically diverse (by Ohio standards; meaning, everyone is slightly right-of-center or just right on the center), Norman-Rockwell-normal neighborhood in Ohio. And I saw at least a dozen signs on the lawns. And a STARTLINGLY high number of these were — aside from the hilarious one that was just a painting of a bald eagle weeping over a gravestone that read “R.I.P. The Constitution” next to a malevolent-looking Obama — signs quoting the Second Amendment, or saying something about how, when governments became oppressive, people had to start or join militias.

But, yeah. I’ll actually buy, for the record, that Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, and Giffords’ opponent were shocked when they found out someone had used their rhetoric to actually shoot and kill a whole lot of people, not least Gabby Giffords, who is still alive as of this current moment, but who did get shot at point-blank range in the head. I’ll buy that they didn’t actually want those people to die.

Which is why we need to place some special emphasis on the fact that Jared Loughner was stupid. Because it is a large part of why they had every reason to see this coming.

7. “Saw this coming?”

Uh, yeah buddy. For one, Gabby Giffords had been subject to large-scale harassment, in terms of phone calls and e-mails; someone had smashed her office window; she had received multiple death threats. All of this action was directly affiliated with the Tea Party. Giffords was very public about the fact that this was happening; she even went on TV to talk about it, aside from whatever she may have done privately. Everybody had every reason to know this was happening. And nobody stopped it. Nobody condemned it; the language did not change. So, for one, we knew that this woman was being targeted for some scary, scary violence, by a lot of people, already. That’s reason one that they had every reason to see this coming.

[ED: I mean, just to re-iterate: There was a culture in which violence against this one specific woman was not only incited, not only acted out, not only talked about, but actually threatened against her, and to some extent — the harassment, the smashing of the window — acted upon. And this was permitted and encouraged. And we want to talk about whether the fact that one person actually decided to commit an act of violence against her miiiiiight have poteeennnnntially been influenced by this, and whether it’s irresponsible to come to that conclusion. To which any reasonable person must say, COME ON: The shooter lived in a culture where it was acceptable to target Gabby Giffords for violence. No matter who he was, or what else was going on with him, that’s what happened. Multiple people were already targeting her, and the condemnation of those people was not all that strong, and the people who created the rhetoric didn’t tone it down. Yeah, he could have been not at all influenced by this rhetoric, conceivably. You could also get struck by lightning and hit by a car at the same time. When somebody shows up with tire tracks on them, you don’t conclude they were struck by lightning.]

Reason two: Jared Loughner was stupid. Jared Loughner, like a whole lot of people, was stupid. He was fucked-up and stupid and placed a very low value on human life; he was terrible. Jared Loughner, like a whole lot of people, was terrible.

And do you know who is most intimately familiar with the fact that a whole lot of people are stupid or terrible? Politicians. And anyone who operates in anything that could be considered a “political” field. Every single person who operates publicly, especially politically, is familiar with the “lowest common denominator” requirement — that is, given that a lot of people who hear you are going to be stupid or terrible, how can you communicate most clearly to them? How can you factor in the known fact that some of the people who hear you are going to be stupid or mean or unreasonable, when you create your message? Whether that’s protecting yourself from the stupid or unreasonable people, or finding a way to convince them to side with you, that is something that every single person who operates in a political field actually, actively has to think about in order to succeed. You have to get the largest possible number of people behind you; lots of people are stupid or mean; let’s not be prissy, we have to win this thing, let’s get them behind you, too.

So the Tea Party created a message. The Tea Party made that message as public as possible. The Tea Party aimed to make that message as convincing to as many people as possible. The Tea Party knew that at least one person who heard them was going to be as stupid and gullible and malleable and bad and wrong as Jared Loughner. And then the Tea Party went ahead and endorsed bullseyes, “Second Amendment remedies,” shooting machine guns; the Tea Party went ahead, knowing that Jared Loughner or someone else just as bad could hear them, and the Tea Party recommended guns.

The Tea Party had every reason to see this coming.

The Tea Party had a lot of people pointing out to them, more or less constantly, that something like this was coming.

And then it came.

7. You’re going to find some way to tie this into lady issues too, aren’t you?

Sure am! For, you see, women who operate in the public arena are always more vulnerable than men, in certain ways. Of course, certain men are vulnerable as well: Gay men, men of color. But there are things to which women are vulnerable that no-one else is.

When they vet or examine you, your background is more vulnerable — men can do things that you can’t do, in your private life. When they look at you or listen to you, your appearance and tone and personality are more vulnerable — it doesn’t take much to be seen as weak or overemotional, and it doesn’t take much to be seen as an overly masculine bitch, and sometimes, if you’re Hillary Clinton, you get to be seen as both. It doesn’t take much to be seen as slutty — Sarah Palin actually knows all about that one; so, for that matter, does Christine O’Donnell — or stupid. And if you’re not stupid, you’re an arrogant bitch. It doesn’t take much, in other words, to make people hate you. When they’re rallying up the hate, the chances that it will fall on you, the girl, are just THAT MUCH HIGHER. You will bear the brunt of it. You simply will.

Here’s what it took to make Jared Loughner hate Gabby Giffords:

“That interest might have triggered Mr. Loughner’s first meeting with Ms. Giffords in 2007. Mr. Loughner said he asked the lawmaker, “How do you know words mean anything?” recalled Mr. Montanaro. He said Mr. Loughner was “aggravated” when Ms. Giffords, after pausing for a couple of seconds, “responded to him in Spanish and moved on with the meeting.”

And I am sorry. But this is classic. A man tries to impress a woman; she is not impressed; he hates her very much (he told a friend that she was “stupid” later, as per the friend), and then he retaliates. Whether that’s a guy calling you “bitch” because you won’t let him buy you a drink at the bar, or a street harasser telling you that you’re “not really that hot” after you tell him to fuck off, or your college classmate targeting you for shittiness all semester long because you’re doing well (I, personaly, had a guy sit behind me and pull faces every time I talked, occasionally making the “yap yap” motion with his hand), or an abuser slapping his wife for sassing him back and not making him feel Important and Like a Man, or a guy pulling a gun on a female politician because he couldn’t outsmart her at a meeting, that is some classic misogyny happening, right there.

So, yes. I will find a way to bring lady issues into it. Because this was going on for a long while, and a female politician who failed to be impressed by a male constituent was the one who got shot. Because the lady issues, they are already there.

7. I’m sorry. You went on forever, like you always do. Whose fault is this, again?

The climate exemplified by this right here, and the people who made that climate possible, and the people who made this:

And the man they knew they were probably talking to. These people, and their audience, Jared Loughner.


  1. Magdalene wrote:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, again.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Alyson wrote:

    @Sady’s comment #5:
    You know, this map of Palin’s really creeps me out. Her usage of the red crosshairs to indicate “already dead” is very reminiscent of certain anti-choice websites which post lists of information about doctors–their names are in black, unless they’re either dead or there have been attempts made on their lives, in which case their names change colors. It’s very scary that she seems to be getting her ideas from those groups…and that this is the kind of thing that happens to one of the people on her list–one of the few who wasn’t re-elected–whether or not Loughner was influenced by the tea party or not.

    And if, as K Not K wrote, he’s more the “sovereign citizen” type, then that’s even more frightening.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  3. Zoe wrote:

    I’m a huge fan of Tiger Beatdown, though I’ve never commented before(largely because every time I read one of your posts I agree with just about everything you say), but this time I have a bit of a beef with your argument, namely repeatedly calling Loughner “stupid”.

    While your explanation of the lowest common denominator problem in politics was totally eye-opening to me, bringing Loughner down to the level where he is just some stupid, terrible guy out there minimizes what he did, in my opinion. There are, as you said, plenty of stupid, terrible people out there who are exposed to these same incendiary campaign strategies, but who nonetheless don’t pull out a gun and murder innocent people. In many respects, Loughner isn’t unique at all in terms of his background and what he’s been exposed to, and probably even his personality. Therefore, I think something more has to be said about him than that he was just an idiot exposed to dirty campaigning.

    I’m not saying that he should get off the hook one something like schizophrenia (I read an article questioning why white murderers are insane, whereas colored ones are terrorists that really got me hating on the he’s-schizophrenic-and-can’t-help-it logic), but there’s got to be something more to it than just idiocy. Your analysis of the situation is extremely apt and convincing, but the “stupid” argument ruins some of its effect.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  4. I’m pretty sure that shooting someone because you don’t like their politics is a stupid thing to do, regardless of what other issues are involved. Most of us with mental illnesses (myself included) don’t go around shooting people. Nor do most people with extreme political views of any sort. Moving from the thought: ‘I don’t like what this lady is saying, so I should totally shoot her to make things better’ to actually doing it is, in fact, a stupid thing to do.

    It is a stupid thing to do regardless of whether he himself is stupid. It is stupid no matter how fervently he believes it. It is stupid no matter how damaged or brilliant or zealous or politically confused he might be. He could be the alternate-reality twin with the facial hair or a yellow lantern or a do-gooder from Bizzarro world (okay, that last one actually makes a bit of sense), and it would still be a stupid thing to do.

    And while by no means a certainty, stupid things are most often done by stupid people.

    I’m honestly surprised at the amount of pushback this post has received. It seems to be standard, wonderful, I – <3 – Sady awesome, only with extra 'but what about..?' sprinkles on top. I don't know how to explain it, but it makes me rather uncomfortable.

    … Oh, that's what it is. There are more comments on language and detail than on the overall thrust of the article itself. I'm not saying those aren't valid comments, but that there's an unusually high proportion of them in this case.

    (Aaand now that this derail into my own feelings and meta is over, I'd just like to reiterate that a) I like the post, b) it was a stupid thing to do, and c) stupid activities (frequently-but-not-always) strongly correlate with stupid people as actors.)

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Jordan Rastrick wrote:


    “I’m pretty sure that shooting someone because you don’t like their politics is a stupid thing to do, regardless of what other issues are involved.”

    At this stage, its possible Loughner shot people largely because he didn’t like their *grammar*. Would you say that makes it a stupid act?

    “Most of us with mental illnesses (myself included) don’t go around shooting people.”

    Of course not. But most people with physical illnesses don’t die from hypoglycemia; that doesn’t negate the fact that there is a particular subset of physical diesase, diabetes, that plays a causal role in a lot of those deaths.

    Likewise, psychosis, coupled with other factors, demonstrably leads some (*not all*) people who suffer from it to act violently.

    “And while by no means a certainty, stupid things are most often done by stupid people.”

    I don’t quite understand the preference for characterising a violent person as unintelligent rather than mentally ill. Sure, most people with a mental illness don’t kill people; neither do most stupid people. Loughner is quite possibly both, in which case both may well have contributed to his actions.

    “There are more comments on language and detail than on the overall thrust of the article itself.”

    Well, maybe a large number of people happen to agree with the overall thrust to an extent, but disagree with some of the details.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  6. We get further details now from two reporters working this part of the story…David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post joins me here in the studio and Kirk Johnson of The New York Times is in Tucson…And Kirk lets start with you…The release of documents from the college would seem to indicate that they knew for a while they had a problem in Jared Loughner…KIRK JOHNSON The New York Times They certainly knew they had disruptive presence…If you look at these documents that were released they show a pattern of disruption in class. Their — the reports usually say that these incidents dont rise to the level of threat or action at that time.

    Monday, January 31, 2011 at 2:02 am | Permalink