Tragedies like the events of January 8th in Tuscan shake the nation. We grieve for the victims and struggle to make sense of it all. The dialogue that has followed the event is not surprising. People want and need to understand why a person would do such a thing. These events are mind boggling and the human brain does not tolerate the ambiguity and senselessness of such acts. We gain solace by filling in the blanks with assumptions about the gunman’s sanity or motives.
We respond by presuming that only a mad man could commit such heinous acts. Or, we conclude that because the principle target was a politician, that his behavior must be ideologically driven. These assumptions provide a framework within which the event is easier to comprehend. The notion of insanity simplifies the situation: mental illness becomes the culprit. The notion of it being a politically motivated act also allows us to point a finger.
In fact, however, we don’t know what brought this young man to make such a terrible choice. The incomplete mosaic of the shooter’s life drawn from disparate snapshots by relative strangers suggests erratic behavior and disjointed thoughts. Was he abusing substances or evidencing symptoms of psychosis? As of right now we just don’t know.
We do know, however, that he and his family lived a reclusive life and that he struggled to exhibit sufficient adaptive skills to successfully navigate the worlds of work and college. I suggest that although it may be easy to conclude that Loughner is deranged, it is important to remember that insanity is not a prerequisite for such atrocious behavior. You may assume that only insane people would commit such crimes – but the reality is that ordinary people are capable of doing equally terrible things if their beliefs and their culture condone it or even honor it.
It is for example quite wrong to assume that the 9/11 terrorists were insane. Their faith in their god and the teachings of their religious book as well as the value put on such beliefs by the narrow sect of their particular extremist culture made them heroes and martyrs, destined for eternal bliss.
There are other situations where the sanity line is a bit murkier. Timothy McVeigh was apparently paranoid and quite capable of rationalizing his behavior by revising or cherry picking historical facts: but he too was highly motivated to act out his own form of justice for crimes that he believed were committed by the Federal Government (e.g., Waco, Ruby Ridge). His perspective about right and wrong was different than most of ours, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify him as insane. We don’t understand or align with his thinking and thus conclude that he must be mentally ill. The brutality of his behavior certainly bolsters such a conclusion. But recall that he was a decorated soldier in the Gulf War. He was a trained killer. The enemy, at some point following his discharge from the Army, shifted from Saddam Hussein to the US Federal Government. His beliefs justified his behavior in his eyes.
There are legitimate examples of heinous crimes committed by individuals with clear mental illness issues such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy. Seung-Hui Cho (of Virginia Tech) also comes to mind. Jared Loughner on the surface appears to be more in this category, but it is a presumption at this point. There is no evidence that he was driven by a different set of moral imperatives spurred on by rancorous political hate speech.
Regardless, as many pundits have proclaimed, there is a fear that the vitriol that abounds in our political discourse may inspire and incite the Timothy McVeighs of the world. Frankly, my first assumption was that the attack on Giffords was inspired by the very hate and fear emanating from the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Again, it is imprudent to draw such conclusions, but when someone has a differing political perspective and you target them as enemies of the state, destined to destroy America, then you have touched your toes on the line! And when you incite hate and associate the opposing side with Hitler and Soviet Stalinists, then you have crossed the line. Compound such rhetoric with images of violence and you have become grossly irresponsible.
I implore all US citizens to embrace civility and reject those that employ hatred to further their ideology. We have all too real and tragic examples of the consequences of this behavior. Lets devote our attention to civil dialogue about the issues that challenge our people and our planet. The issues and we the people, deserve better!