Sunday, January 09, 2011

Yes, Jared Loughner was 'crazy'. That doesn't exculpate the milieu that unhinged him

-- by Dave

They're all going to say Jared Loughner is crazy -- especially the right-wing hate talkers and Sarah Palin defenders who everybody's looking at right now. And you know what? They're right. But that doesn't mean they're blameless, either.

As I already argued:

When the conservative movement's True Believers are fed a steady diet of extraordinary warnings intended to induce a paranoiac, panicked fear -- They're Destroying America! They Want to End Your Liberty! Health Care Reform is the End of America! -- and simultaneously fed a diet of suggestions that the solution is simply to do away with them (see Sean Hannity's recent bit of eliminationist "humor"), then what other outcome should you expect?

Some are pointing out that Loughner's old acquaintances describe him -- circa 2007 -- as "left-wing pothead." That may well have been true at the time.

But if we examine the trail of videos and assorted writings he left behind in recent years, it's clear that his politics took quite a different swerve to the other side of the road in recent years: it is abundantly clear that he's now a devoted anti-government conspiracist. In particular, he seems to have developed an obsession with that classic right-wing conspiracy theory: the belief that American currency, since going off the gold standard, has become "fiat money" based on nothing. Likewise, he seems to have bought into beliefs about "government mind control" quite common to right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Chip Berlet observes that this is a strain with a long right-wing pedigree:

Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona shares an obsession with government currency and money manipulation plots with anti-abortion killer John C. Salvi 3d.

... Jared Lee Loughner warned about the "current treasonous laws," and stated he would not "pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver!." He said he could not "trust the current government because of" Constitutional "ratifications; adding that the "government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people controlling grammar (sic)."

In recent years some conspiracy theorists on the political right and left have spread similar money plot theories, although they deny any lineage back to historic antisemitic roots. Instead they point to the Populist Party battle over the coinage of silver and gold in the late 1800s, popularized in the book and movie, the Wizard of Oz. Some proponents of the idea of a currency plot in the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, routinely used antisemitic references to Jewish bankers. The obsession with manipulation of currency by secret Jewish plots traces back to the hoax document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and antisemitic writings by Father Denis Fahey, an adviser to 1930s radio demagogue Father Coughlin, a fascist and an antisemite.

The writings of Jared Lee Loughner are an odd jumble of right-wing Patriot and anti-Federal Reserve themes mixed with rhetoric similar to that from people who are mentally unbalanced. It is too early to tell where this story will lead. It is clear, though, that aggressive right-wing rhetoric targeting Democrats as treasonous encourages some unstable people to act out in aggression or violence.

In the YouTube videos he left behind, he also discusses his views of what constitutes terrorism -- and it's not exactly coherent:

If I define terrorist then a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon.

I define terrorist.

This, a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon.

If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem.

You call me a terrorist.

Thus, the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem.

He also follows some classic right-wing thinking about revolutionarism:

If the property owners and government officials are no longer in ownership of their land and laws from a revolution then the revolutionary's from the revolution are in control of the land and laws.

The property owners and government officials are no longer in ownership of their land and laws from a revolution.

Thus, the revolutionary's from the revolution are in control of the land and laws.

And he seems to be obsessed with the Constitution -- though he seems to have trouble actually reading it:

In conclusion, reading the second United States Constition, I can't trust the current government because of the ratifications: The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.

And then there's the classic demand to return to the gold standard:

No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver!

No! I won't trust in God!

What's government if words don't have meaning?

Suffice to say that he's a very confused young man.

Indeed, what we can say clearly is that Jared Loughner -- like a lot of people who buy into right-wing conspiracism -- believes a lot of things that are provably untrue. He's a classic demonstration of the unhinging effect that conspiracism and right-wing up-is-downism has on people: once people become unhinged from reality, they inevitably become unhinged in their behavior.

It seems doubtful to me, though, that he'll be able to put up an insanity defense, unless some real illness is uncovered.

But what the Fox talkers -- especially Beck and O'Reilly -- will claim, as they do every time there's another horrific act of right-wing violence, is that he's just a nutcase, not right or left, and therefore nobody should be blaming hate talkers on the right for inspiring him.

And it's true -- especially in cases where mental illness is potentially at play -- that there is limited culpability for being part of the milieu that creates these acts of horror. As it happens, we don't charge people criminally for aiding and abetting the acts of an insane person by whipping them up into a frenzy.

But that doesn't mean it happens in a vacuum, either, and can thus be dismissed as an "isolated incident" merely. As I wrote some time back:

Part of the problem is that we actually have seen this happen time after time after time: A mentally unstable person is inspired by hateful right-wing rhetoric to act out violently -- and yet because of that mental state, the matter is dismissed as idiosyncratic, just another "isolated incident." And over the months and years, these "isolated incidents" mount one after another.

But simply ascribing these acts to mental illness is a cop-out. It fails to account for the gross irresponsibility of the people who employed the rhetoric that inspired the violent action in the first place, and their resulting moral culpability.

... The problem is that this has happened more than "on occasion" -- rather, there is a history of this kind of violence, and there's a consistent pattern to it. What's most noteworthy is that the violence expands with the increasing use of eliminationist rhetoric. When people look at the Gwatney shooting and ask "Why?" -- as so many are -- that history and that pattern are a good place to start looking.

The hate talkers may not be directly to blame, but they are morally and ethically culpable. But there is culpability nonetheless. The bottom line is being accountable for the words we use:

Because we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of thought, there will probably always be haters like Richard Poplawski among us. Inevitably they will be driven by fear: the fear of difference. Because to them, difference of any kind is a threat.

And what we know from experience about volatile, unstable actors like them is that they can be readily induced into violent action by hateful rhetoric that demonizes and dehumanizes other people. And thanks to human nature and those same freedoms, we will certainly always have fearmongering demagogues among us. But the purveyors of such profoundly irresponsible rhetoric need to be called on it -- especially when they hold the nation's media megaphones.

[Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.

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