Asking "why?" without the blame game

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 Loughnerâs firing frenzy, is the first Jewish female elected to such a high position in the US government. She was also opposite this groupâs 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 â 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 âmoderately disagreeâ and ânot sure.â No one responded as one would expect from the most prototypical militant extremist â 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 âframingsâ 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 âantithesisâ 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 oneâs actions; (c) an avoidance of military terminology outside of narrow military contexts; (d) no perception thatâs 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 âantithesisâ 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.


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You're a coward, Rosenau.

I can't add much directly here, but I might venture to say that violent rhetoric commonly arises from hard times and troubled people. In such conditions, people are under unusual stress, and even otherwise-rational and ordinary people lose their tempers, politicians included. Restraint may be a remarkably difficult request to make -- though I refuse to lose hope.

To the point, establishing succession rules for significant state-level offices might be one straightforward way of fighting against political violence. An assassination that won't result in regime change may never materialize, especially in the case of "lone gunmen" who seek to change history with a quick spray of bullets.

irst, 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.

While technically true that "we don't know" that Loughner had any mental illness, there's plenty of basis to suspect he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia just from reading his writings. Word salad, paranoid delusions, they're all there. Is this conclusive evidence? No, obviously not. However, there's plenty there to lead anyone with knowledge of psychology to suspect that Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic. it's bleedingly obvious; indeed, I have two psychologists in my family, and both of them thought Loughner's writings sounded schizophrenic.

Instead of framing things as the blame-game, how about calling out people who promote violent speech. For instance, Keith Olbermann called out himself, amongst others to tone the rhetoric, ask for forgiveness and repudiate any seemingly violent statements he or anyone else has made.

Regardless, there was an interesting study regarding kindness and its affects upon others. Kindness within a community can spread like wildfire.

This young man was obviously troubled. While everyone must take full accountability for their actions, I doubt he had much inner control over his own psychotic thoughts. He is likely a victim of his own chemical makeup. Thus society is required to reach out to the isolated, disillusioned and lost.

Help, and the ease of obtaining it must become more, not less available. In other words, community outreach starts with the neighbor, the brother the friend.

Unfortunately, had this person been Muslim, and the FBI learned about his tendacies ahead of time, instead of medical assistance, they would have set up a sting to have him blowup a tree lighting ceremony.

The FBI are not healers, they are not medical specialists, but they could move in when hate speech and violent conspiracies start, not to set up stings, but to require counseling so that he no longer posed a danger to himself or others.

We must not forget that human beings, yes human beings were inspired by one radio station to kill one million Tutsis in Rwanda. One must not underestimate the power hate speech has upon fragile, as well as ordinary minds. In Rwanda, the voice on the radio drove a million ordinary people into frenzied merciless killers who chopped children and their parents to bits.

Josh, thank you so much for this post. It's a perfect antidote to wild speculation and finger-pointing. Nice use of critical thinking, and nice use of emotional and social intelligence. I salute you!

Thanks for the sixteen antithesis narratives. As I was reading them, I was thinking of the similarities between the 2012 hysteria, the NA hysteria, the extreme right-wing hysteria, the vaccination and anti-vaccination hysterias (dueling hysterias do not make an interesting banjo melody; they're just a screeching cacophony), and noting that the inciting behaviors are the same, no matter which rallying flag is waved.

The point is not to let oneself be manipulated into extremism of any stripe, and to not support the manipulation of others. I knew that, but didn't have clarity about how to reduce the effects of manipulation around me. It has felt so hopeless. Thank you so much for providing a possible roadmap out of the hysterical, rage-filled, finger-pointing darkness.


Looks like Loughner might be one of your guys:

â"A classmate of the man accused of shooting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this morning describes him as "left wing" and a "pot head" in a series of posts on Twitter this afternoon.

Caitie Parker did not immediately respond to our request for an interview, but her "tweets" in the hours after the shooting paint a picture of Jared Loughner as a substance-abusing loner who had met Giffords before the shooting. She says, Loughner described the congresswoman as "stupid and unintelligent."

We've confirmed that Parker and Loughner went to school together at Mountain View High School in Tucson and that both attended Pima Community College, so her claims of knowing Loughner seem to be legit.

Parker "tweets" that she and Loughner were in the band together and were friends until 2007 when he became "reclusive" after getting alcohol poisoning and dropping out of college.

She describes him as "quite liberal" and as a "political radical."


You liberals had better tone down your rhetoric. You've already incited one of your own to kill 6 people.

But is Parker someone able to distinguish liberal from libertarian, chris?

I'd be curious if response to the Saucier synthesis narrative has ever been correlated against RWA and SDO attitudes that Altemeyer has worked with. Probably not yet.

Abb3w: The narrative was, in fact, correlated with Altemeyer's work. It doesn't align perfectly, but it isn't far off.

Chris: Troll elsewhere. You've posted here under at least three names, and that counts as sockpuppetry.

Chris @ #5 Yes, he probably was a liberal until schizophrenia chopped in (typically in the early 20s) and now, being mad, he became Tea-Potty.

Some evidence he was connected somehow to American Renaissance? There is none. There is no evidence he was a subscriber, attended conferences or even visited the website. The memo Faux News had turns out not to be from the DHS. Their description of AmRen was inaccurate as Mark Potok at the $PLC admitted. The memo didn't spell Giffords name corrected and make incorrect comments about Jewish women in government. They said Giffords was the most prominent Jewish women in the federal government. Two Senators and two Supreme Court Justices would suggest otherwise. The article was later changed to say "in Arizona."

Vaughan Bell has an important essay at Slate, making clear that "he did it because he's crazy" isn't enough of an answer.

This is an excellent point that can't be repeated enough, I think. Reflexively explaining violence through mental illness is not only factually wrong, it's an incredibly nasty thing to do to an already-stigmatized group.

That said, this:

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.

is a rather startling non-sequitur by Bell. Psychiatric diagnoses include assessments of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as acute emotional factors and contributing physical disorders. They can tell us a heck of a lot about someone's propensity or motive for violence, precisely because they cover so many more aspects of a person's behavior than just the presence or absence of long-term mental disorders.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 10 Jan 2011 #permalink

Josh Rosenau: The narrative was, in fact, correlated with Altemeyer's work. It doesn't align perfectly, but it isn't far off.

Ah, missed that first glance. Skimming the paper a second time, I see the mention of it. It looks like they only tried correlation to Altemeyer's RWA metric, and not the SDO metric that Sidanius developed (and Altemeyer has made further use of). Both would seem relevant.

Definitely interesting, however.

An interesting post, followed by some truly scary comments.

What is utterly baffling from a European point of view is any discussion of the folly of selling guns in supermarkets.

Guns have only one purpose, to kill people. They should be totally illegal, for everyone at any time.

Until the USA wakes up to this obvious fact, it will continue to present to the rest of the world that it lives in a sort of B-movie fantasy land.

"the teabagging movement"? Really? Is that a scientific term? Or did you just forget to hide your bias? What a load of unmitigated twaddle.