In my post yesterday about the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, I tried hard not to say that Loughner’s mass murder was caused by insanity, or by violent political rhetoric. We don’t know anything about that, and we’ll know more once he goes to trial. What we’ll find at trial is surely that his actions had complex causes that are hard to untangle: that’s the nature of most things people do. But we can still look for major causes, even if they can’t explain all of his tragic decisions.
Vaughan Bell has an important essay at Slate, making clear that “he did it because he’s crazy” isn’t enough of an answer. First, we don’t know that he had any mental illness (though it’s hard to fathom how a sane person could commit this act), nor do we know which he has. Early speculation called him schizophrenic, but with no basis. Second, even if he is mentally ill, indeed even if he’s schizophrenic, that wouldn’t explain his violence. Most mentally ill people are not violent, nor are most schizophrenics. Bell reports a meta-analysis of all studies on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder: “they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone’s propensity or motive for violence. Drugs and alcohol are strong predictors of violent behavior, but mental illness is not.
Maybe Loughner’s murderous impulses were exacerbated by delusions or hallucinations driven by mental illness. If so, it reminds us how crucial it is that we improve the quality of mental health care for all citizens, and we should remember that this was an effort Rep. Giffords fought for. It’s also something that the Affordable Care Act improves, allowing patients with pre-existing conditions to become insured, and requiring insurers to cover mental health services. For backing this legislation, Giffords’s office was vandalized and she was added to Sarah Palin’s “target” list, a list complete with gunsights.
We don’t know Jared Loughner’s politics. Someone who knew him in 2007 says he leaned to the left, but his favorite books include works by Ayn Rand and Adolf Hitler, hardly leftist favorites. His online writings and videos show a concern with the US currency, and with other issues more typical of Objectivists and some wings of conservative libertarianism. Those are also major influences of folks like Glen Beck and others in the teabagging movement. There’s some evidence Loughner was fond of American Renaissance, a white supremacist hate group active in immigration policy, and not fond of Jews, non-whites, or Democrats. Giffords was Jewish, as a DHS law enforcement memo quoted by Fox News observes: “Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the target of Loughner’s firing frenzy, is the first Jewish female elected to such a high position in the US government. She was also opposite this group’s ideology when it came to immigration debate.” American Renaissance denies having any connection to Loughner, and groups including the SPLC and ADL don’t think he matches the profile of an American Renaissance enthusiast.
Given the violet rhetoric directed at Giffords, though, it isn’t unreasonable to look past Loughner himself to find some external factors that might have given his rage direction. It’s entirely possible that violent rhetoric from Glen Beck or Sarah Palin influenced Loughner without Beck or Palin having intended any such thing. But research described by John Sides at The Monkey Cage suggests that it isn’t enough to say “we didn’t mean it.” Experiments by Nathan Kalmoe, for instance, show that “even mild violent language increases support for political violence among citizens with aggressive predispositions, especially among young adults.”
This effect is not uniform. Most people reject any attempt to justify political violence, and for most people, seeing a violent political ad doesn’t change that. But Sides explains:
Seeing violence political ads DID have an effect among those with a predisposition to aggression, as measured with a standard psychological battery. Among those with the greatest predisposition to aggression, being exposed to a violent political ad increased their support for political violence by about 20 points on a 100-point scale. Among those with the least predisposition to aggression, being exposed to a a violent ad actually decreased their support for violence.
This conditional relationship — between seeing violent ad and a predisposition to aggression — appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).
Kalmoe draws the obvious conclusion from this result: “The evidence here might be sufficient to make political leaders think twice before infusing violent language into speeches and ads, particularly in situations when their audiences are already boiling over with hostility.”
Sides also references a research summary by Lee Sigelman, describing a project that synthesized the narratives constructed by militant extremists globally: from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber. While no single set of traits unified each of the extremists, there were sixteen common themes, which can be constructed as this narrative:
We (i.e., our group, however defined) have a glorious past, but modernity has been disastrous, bringing on a great catastrophe in which we are tragically obstructed from reaching our rightful place, obstructed by an illegitimate civil government and/or by an enemy so evil that it does not even deserve to be called human. This intolerable situation calls for vengeance. Extreme measures are required; indeed for realizing our sacred end any means will be justified. We must think in military terms, annihilating this evil and purifying the world of it. It is a duty – we must kill the perpetrators of evil, and we cannot be blamed that we had to carry out this violence. Those who sacrifice themselves in our cause will attain glory, and in this struggle supernatural powers should come to our aid. In the end, we will bring our people to a world that is a paradise.
There is little doubt that that narrative fits the Tea Party nicely, and seems also to accord with what we know of Jared Loughner. It also has many parallels with the literature on fascism, which often relies on the premise that the movement will restore a lost golden age (palingenesis).
What is most troubling about this finding, though, is what the researchers found next. Having identified these sixteen narratives, they surveyed their student population’s views on each narrative (one population in the US, another in Serbia):
When presented with statements that are in fact extracts of militant-extremist thinking, the typical response was somewhere in the range between “moderately disagree” and “not sure.” No one responded as one would expect from the most prototypical militant extremist – strongly agreeing with all indicator items. But respondents generally failed to strongly disassociate themselves from the sentiments found in these items. Thus, the base rate of fanatical thinking patterns in the population does not appear to be low.
That means that:
Although militant-extremist leaders no doubt play a key role, it is probably not necessary for participants in militant-extremist movements to be brainwashed or severely indoctrinated. All that may be required is an intensification and an orchestration of sentiments and of “framings” to which many people are already sympathetic, at least at a moderate level.
So what can be done? These authors note that each of the 16 narratives have direct opposites, and that advocating for those counter-narratives may be enough to stave off extremist attacks:
Such an “antithesis” pattern of thought would include the following: (a) moderation and working through the system, without resort to extreme measures; (b) taking responsibility for the consequences of all of one’s actions; (c) an avoidance of military terminology outside of narrow military contexts; (d) no perception that’s one group is being obstructed in an important way; (e) a recognition that the past was far from ideal; (f) no seeking of a utopia or paradise in the future; (g) refraining from framing events in terms of catastrophes and calamities; (h) no expectation of supernatural intervention or commands; (i) no requisite to annihilate evil or purify the world; (j) no particular glory seen in dying for a cause; (k) killing and attacking not seen as a duty, but more a source of shame; (l) adhering to moral and ethical rules even in the service of sacred things; (m) intolerance, vengeance, and warlikeness vilified; (n) never dehumanizing or demonizing another person; (o) modernity being seen as having at
least some good points; and (p) the civil political order being seen as being as least partially legitimate. Such a pattern of thought in some points resembles the rationalist viewpoint of existential psychology; in other points it resembles a quietist, acceptance-oriented philosophy (like that found in Taoism, Jainism, Sufism, or Buddhism, or among the Quakers), and in yet other points it reflects political moderation. If social norms more strongly corresponded to this “antithesis” pattern, they might be expected to inhibit the development of militant extremist movements. Thus, facilitating or reinforcing the antithesis pattern could be a key part of a recipe for reducing the rate of fanatical thinking and preventing destructive militant extremism. Promulgating the antithesis pattern would simultaneously serve to challenge self-deceptions involved in militant-extremist thinking.
That’s a valuable lesson, and a goal we can all work towards. Whether that sort of rhetoric would have saved six lives in Tucson yesterday we may never know, nor are we likely to know for certain whether a change in the rhetoric from certain prominent media figures could have averted this tragedy. But if we heed this advice, we may well avert at least some such tragedies in the future.