Eve Conant and Claire Martin dig into Jared Loughner’s background, trying to explain his mass murder. I think the first half the piece is weak, alas, but the second half is dynamite. The first builds on interviews with his neighbors, who say that the 22 year-old liked to walk the streets in a hoodie with his earbuds in, and didn’t respond to greetings. That could be a sign of mental illness, I suppose, or it could mean he’s a disaffected 22 year-old guy who lives with his parents and isn’t happy about it. If we rounded up all the guys or gals who wear hoodies and listen to iPods, we’d have to repopulate huge swaths of the Mission and Williamsburg.
The second half of the piece interviews experts who’ve been poring over Loughner’s rhetoric, and that’s where things get interesting:
Loughner’s rambling Internet missives, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, likely come from well known online sources of the radical right. Potok, who studies hate groups and hate speech, has combed Loughner’s sites and says his material on grammar, in particular, likely comes from the writings of the Milwaukee-based, far right activist David Wynn Miller. As Potok explains it, Miller “believes in a ‘truth language’ that can throw off the government. If you use the right combination of colons and hyphens you don’t have to pay taxes. Miller is virtually the only person who pushes these ideas on grammar, it’s a very unusual idea, even on the radical right.” For his part, Miller tells The Daily Beast/Newsweek that Loughner has never reached out to him, but that “I expect he’s been on my website… He’s just repeating things I’ve had up on my site the past 11 years.” …
In examining Loughner’s list of favorite books, which includes Orwell and Mein Kampf, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Potok notes that an anti-government thread runs through all those works. In addition, Loughner’s obsession with currency not being backed by gold and silver “is a core idea of the militia, or Patriot, movement.” Loughner at one point writes, “My favorite activity is conscience dreaming” and Potok thinks he might mean “conscious dreaming,” an idea particularly perpetrated by a British writer David Icke. “The link to Icke, who is an extremist, might be weak, but the basic idea of conscious dreaming is impossible to understand but boils down to: what we think is reality really isn’t. We live in a holographic universe,” Potok says. If that is a philosophy Loughner had adopted, that might in some ways explain books like “Alice in Wonderland” and other alternate reality books on his favorite book list. “Most likely he is a mentally ill man who heard a lot of vitriolic rhetoric and started to absorb some of it,” says Potok.
David Icke is known for, among other things, arguing that shape-shifting reptilians have infiltrated our government as part of an elaborate plot involving Masons and British royalty and maybe even Elvis. He apparently has quite a following. Grammar-obsessive and self-styled “King of Hawaii” David Wynn Miller claims that Loughner must have been brainwashed by the Air Force.
Mother Jones has an exclusive interview with one of Jared Loughner’s long-time friends, who describes Loughner’s shift from a pot-smoking nihilist to an increasingly withdrawn and obsessive character. The shift began in high school (where, it should be noted, schizophrenia often begins to manifest). It caused him to focus on dreaming, especially the “lucid,” “conscience,” or perhaps conscious dreaming described above. According to the friend, “Loughner believed that dreams could be a sort of alternative, Matrix-style reality, and ‘that when you realize you’re dreaming, you can do anything, you can create anything.’” It’s almost like Loughner was self-diagnosing a schizophrenic break from reality.
Loughner quit drinking and smoking pot in 2008, according to the friend, but “After he quit, he was just off the wall.” Again, undiagnosed or uninsured schizophrenics often self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs as a way to control their symptoms, so this isn’t a surprising result. In the last couple of years, the friend says Loughner had drifted even further into his dream-world, to the extent that his dreams became “his waking life, his reality.”
Asked why he thinks Loughner did what he did, the friend 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 fucks things up to fuck shit 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’—to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in.”
It’s possible, of course, that Loughner’s actions have no rational explanation. But as rational people, we want more. Why that Saturday and not some other day? Why Giffords and not someone else? Apparently Loughner had been fixated on a dissatisfying answer Giffords gave Loughner at a public event some time back, but is that enough explanation? Mother Jones describes Loughner as “ticked off by what he believed to be a pervasive authoritarianism” in society, but it isn’t clear whether that’s the friend’s assessment or their own interpretation of Loughner’s far-from-coherent writings.
What we know, then, is that he was probably schizophrenic, which isn’t an explanation for violence. It doesn’t seem like he was being treated. He had become obsessed with ideas that even fringe thinkers find kind of strange. But that isn’t a predictor of violence on its own either. He was unhappy and isolated, apparently directionless. But we still haven’t got something that, even within his own irrational framework, makes sense of Saturday’s tragedy.