Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hey, remember that crazy guy who did that thing? Yeah, that was CRAZY.

As much as people complained about heightened political rhetoric and its contribution to the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords, the thing that has frustrated me the most about the public dialogue aftermath has been how utterly sedated it has been... how we've conveniently passed the buck to Loughner and distanced ourselves from any sort of violence on account of his psychological condition.  

The guy was crazy.  He should have had psychiatric attention.  Let's do a feature story on schizophrenia and its warning signs.  How could someone like Loughner have obtained a gun?  But let's remember that the dude is crazy.  This is about a deranged act of violence that we just can't wrap our minds (or more importantly, our flag!) around.  I mean, how could this happen?!  We didn't see it coming because we couldn't fathom it, because... you know... he was crazy.  Not like us.  Which is why we can't fathom any sort of political violence with which we might be complicit or to which we may some day feel an ethical necessity to appeal.

Most of that isn't technically wrong, I guess, but the belaboring of the point that Loughner was disturbed has served to make political violence something that we just can't possibly attribute to ourselves.  It's just something that crazy people do.  That stuff is for conspiracy theorists living in bunkers, or young nihilists who can't put together a coherent thought.  It's not the sort of thing that Democrats or Republicans do.  It's not the sort of thing that a military does (well, our military at least).

This is why protest movements in the United States are so anemic.  No one has a sense that political violence is something that we do.  If it's state sanctioned, then we cease to worry about it and let those who are hurting for a paycheck enlist to go overseas for us.  If it's not an act of state violence, or if it's domestic in any way, then the perpetrator is either crazy or a terrorist.  That's not to say that Loughner wasn't crazy, or that someone like the Unabomber wasn't a terrorist in some real sense... but the fact that this is the only sort of political violence we can process puts us in an extremely vulnerable position.  Heaven help us if we're put in a situation like Iran or Tunisia.  Yes, Americans were really supportive of protests in Iran (because Iran is a part of the axis of evil, dontchaknow), but the buzzword with Tunisia amongst the media class is now not "liberation", but "stability".  Folks who don't like the current transition government are "angry"... but why?  Can't they be happy with what they've got?  Why do they need to keep acting up?  Any disruption of the status quo that can't be attributed to mental disturbance or explained as a bullet point in our foreign policy agenda makes us uncomfortable.

That's not to say that we can't process this stuff at all, but I think that doing so brings us quite out of our element.  Beyond the mundane stating of the facts of Loughner's mental problems, I think the continued dwelling on it in analysis of the assassination attempt is primarily a strategy of depoliticization.  Whether or not this depoliticization is appropriate in the case of this particular event, the result of its continued reinforcement within our political dialogue is that we can't talk about political violence (of either oppressive or liberative sorts) without freaking out and trying to explain away any reason why we should either make use of it or strongly oppose it.


  1. An interesting view, but I am not quite sure I understand it all. Do you think that Americans attribute only terrorism or mental illness those who commit political violence? That political violence is seen as crazy in our eyes, yet could be seen as liberating or practically necessary to maintain a decent standard of living by those in other countries?

    An issue I have been struggling with has been whether or not the shooting has gotten too much coverage. Certainly the media doesn't want to influence copycats and glorify Loughner, but they also want ratings. I guess what I am trying to ask is that while overexposure of tragedies can be a bad thing, it it worth forgetting about them, and their subsequent victims, for the sake of not giving the criminal the kind of fame they may have wanted?

  2. I don't think that we only ever attribute political violence to these sorts of psychological or ideological margins... but it certainly seems like any event of political violence that becomes a really widespread story soon becomes explained away by some pathology, or as something distant and foreign (either literally or figuratively). And like I said, in any given case doing so isn't necessarily incorrect. The problem that I'm trying to articulate is that the newsmedia almost seemed to have a subtext going with regard to Loughner: "Thank GAWD that kid was crazy. I can sleep better at night knowing that this sort of thing isn't within the realm of normal possibility." I think half of the reason why we're dwelling so much on his mental problems, or on the fact that he isn't really a competent Marxist or Tea Partier or nihilist, is because we're so relieved that we can explain the violence by means of this sort dismissal. This, I think, ill-prepares us for speaking truth to power when it is necessary because we've been lulled into thinking, "that's not really violence because these people don't seem like crazy/terrorists". It also ill-prepares us for taking any necessary action when it's needed because we've been lulled into thinking that, "we shouldn't engage in this sort of uprising/protest/conflict because only crazies/terrorists do that sort of thing, and we aren't crazy/terrorists."

    I pretty much think that there's too much coverage of everything in the media (and not enough coverage of everything else!), so you won't find any argument from me about the frustration concerning overexposure. I don't think reducing exposure leads to an inappropriate forgetting of the victims, though. Mass media has warped our sense of what's an appropriate bond with people we've never met, I think. There are many families, friends, and neighbors for these victims, and anyone who wanted to find out about what was going on or what happened could surely track down the information as necessary. The only thing prevented by less media coverage is sympathy from those who would have not gotten or sought any sort of connection if they weren't already joined at the hip by 24-hour news coverage. That doesn't strike me as a very significant loss.

  3. http://reason.com/archives/2011/01/20/unpacking-jared-lee-loughner


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.