In the days since Jared Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head and murdered six people by firing his Glock pistol into the gathered crowd, people have repeatedly asked, Why?
Why did this young man do something so violent, so reprehensible?
Two main explanations quickly appeared in the media and in everyday discussions – it was due to violent political rhetoric, or it was due to mental illness.
On the rhetoric side, the man tried to kill a Democratic congresswoman in a heated political environment, complete with gun sights over Gifford’s district and public figures speaking of citizens exercising their second amendment rights. However, little evidence has appeared in the days since that ties Loughner to this type of political rhetoric. Rather, he was drawn to the fringe of political ideas, like a return to the gold standard and the government using mind control. The link between mainstream politics and his acts appears tenuous.
The mentally disturbed side has gained traction for several reasons. Loughner’s behavior, writings and videos help paint a picture of a disturbed young man. Many mental health professionals, as well as media pundits, have been eager to diagnosis him as schizophrenic. And making Lougher’s behavior about something just inside his head, not about politics, serves many people’s interests.
Vaughan Bell predicted much of this in his essay early last Sunday, Crazy Talk, on Slate. In my post Jared Lee Loughner – Is Mental Illness the Explanation for What He Did?, I subsequently chronicled ideas and explanations that broke out of the either/or dichotomy. Mental causes and social causes locate explanations in either mental states or political rhetoric. Neither works well.
But a central problem remains – understanding what Loughner did and what we can do about it. If it is not an either/or, then what is it? How can we begin to make sense of Loughner’s terrible act of violence?
I will approach answering that question slowly, first taking us through why the mental illness model is inadequate in this case, then showing how what he did was inherently political, and finally ending with important elements to building a better explanation for Loughner’s terrible actions.
The Mental Illness Breakdown
What mental disorder might Loughner have, and could that explain what he did?
Many people have already diagnosed Loughner with schizophrenia, particularly paranoid schizophrenia. They see evidence of delusions, particularly in what he posted on YouTube, and make him into a schizophrenic. He has lost touch with reality, and he is potentially violent – that is what the schizophrenia is supposed to explain.
Certainly he does have thoughts different from most of us, and his outbursts in the classroom were odd and often aggressive. His videos indicate a significant lack of coherence in the way he thinks. He might be, as Greg has described, in the prodrome of schizophrenia – at risk for it, in early stages that might become schizophrenia, but still connected to reality, still in control.
Schizophrenics in general, as well as paranoid schizophrenics in particular are too disorganized to organize premeditated, multi-step acts of violence. In fact, paranoid schizophrenics tend to isolate themselves and more likely become violent when they feel their personal space is being violated. They don’t go out looking for trouble.
The second is that he had two significant encounters with people that day. A police officer stopped Loughner for running a red light. Everything checked out normal. A taxi driver took him to the grocery store, and was astounded later when his passenger turned out to be the killer. In two public interactions, Loughner came across as normal – not as delusional, paranoid, violent, or disorganized.
Much has also been made of Loughner’s alcohol and drug use. We know that alcohol use heightens propensity to violence, and that alcohol and drug use can worsen mental illness. We also know that Loughner was rejected from the Army for a positive drug test, that during at least one period of his life he used marijuana extensively, and that he drank heavily on occasion.
Does this make him guilty of a diagnosis of substance dependence? No. No evidence has emerged that he was using alcohol or drugs while carrying out the shootings, or that he used drugs to self-medicate any psychotic symptoms. He enjoyed heavy metal music, and smoked pot with friends – but also said that he wanted to leave drug use behind. He was stopped by police after he drank a great deal of vodka, which he said he did because of an argument with his father. This was not someone who exploded because of substance use, getting into a fight at a bar or a violent confrontation with the police.
Other potential mental health explanations might focus on his fixation on Giffords. But he did not stalk Giffords in any discernable way. Or he could get an armchair diagnosis as suffering from antisocial personality disorder. I’m rather surprised no one has said this. But he didn’t have numerous run-ins with police, and exhibited few signs of being “antisocial” during his childhood. It’s a tougher sell in the public domain.
To sum up, Loughner was fixated on Giffords, yes, but not stalking her. He had delusional thoughts, but was not a full-blown paranoid schizophrenic – he was too organized for that. He used alcohol and drugs, but nothing to indicate that he was “souped up” on alcohol and drugs when he did the shooting. Moreover, on the day of the shooting, he got stopped by a policeman, and went with a taxi driver to the site of the shooting. Both saw him as normal
In the end, posing with a gun and red panties, making strange YouTube videos, and spouting off in class is not the same as being mentally ill. These things do highlight that Loughner is a disturbed young man. But to place responsibility for what he did on a “mental illness” misses the facts in the case, and misses too our own responsibility to better understand why he did what he did.
It Was Political
The earliest attempts to make sense of Loughner’s actions, and to cast blame, focused on heated political rhetoric, particularly by politicians and media stars on the right. The view that these political figures incited Loughner to attack has not been supported by what we’ve learned about the young man. He has not been involved in either Republican or Democrat politics, he does not claim allegiance or inspiration by mainstream political figures, and he has made little of recent political debates over health care, immigration, and the recession.
It would be easy to conclude that politics have nothing to do with what he did. This view is wrong. What Jared Loughner did was inherently political, even if not within the realm of “politics as usual,” of fights between Democrats and Republicans. Moreover, what we now do in the wake of Loughner’s act is also inherently political, from how we conduct public discourse to what measures we take to address violence.
Loughner attacked a politician at a political event. He targeted a woman, the youngest woman elected to congress, the first attempt to assassinate a woman politician at the highest levels in the United States. Moreover, he aimed to sow chaos with his acts – several friends have confirmed how he reveled in this sort of act.
He also had political axes to grind; they’re just not mainstream ones. Loughner wants to see the US return to the gold standard. He advocates for a focus on the US Constitution rather than current federal laws. He worries about mind control by the US government, particularly through language.
Loughner’s focus on language and politics and mind control might seem fringe – grammar isn’t really the way political figures aim to control speech and manipulate thought. But that concern –the use of language by politicians and government – is a legitimate one. Language matters, from the freedom of speech embodied in our Constitution to the ways politicians craft messages and frame debates and bureaucracies settle on innocuous language for even the most horrendous things. Language does shape thought and action, particularly when mixed with imagery. As Giffords herself said, “We’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve gotta realize that there are consequences to that action.”
Loughner’s fixation on Giffords also takes place within the realm of politics. He initially met her at a political event; his statements about language and mind control were met with a response on Spanish. He kept a letter from Giffords, part of her political outreach. He attacked her at a political event. To divorce politics from what happened, to say it was only the “deranged actions of a madman,” is to divorce ourselves from what really happened.
What we do next is also inherently political. Loughner’s act raise core political issues. President Obama, like many others, pointed to debates we will have about gun control and about access to and funding of mental health care. His speech focused on political rhetoric and debate, and called for civility.
A Focus on Violence
Like most of us, Obama dances around the core problem – violence. The regulation of guns matters, both as a Constitutional issue and a public safety issue. But the old slogan is largely right – guns don’t kill people, people kill people. A debate over guns, as if access to guns is somehow the cause of Loughner’s actions, is only a bad proxy for what Loughner did: kill.
Similarly, in our push to be seen to be doing something about this tragedy, considerable attention is being placed on our mental health infrastructure (or lack thereof) and on how universities and colleges can better handle the mental and behavioral health problems among their students. I would be among the first to support better mental health coverage in this country. But what Loughner did is not simply a mental health issue. It is a violence issue. And that requires us to focus on him as a person, and to think about how to understand that, and what we can then do.
In Loughner’s dealings with Pima Community College, it was his potential for violence, and his interest in it, that led to his suspension.
He sang to himself in the library. He spoke out of turn. And in an act the college finally decided merited his suspension, he made a bizarre posting on YouTube linking the college to genocide and the torture of students.
“This is my genocide school,” the narrator on the video said, describing the college as “one of the biggest scams in America.” “We are examining the torture of students,” the narrator said.
It is telling that the two recourses Pima Community College had proved insufficient. For the college police, it was not clear that he had broken a law, since he had not made specific threats against individuals. The college did suspend him, and said he would need a mental health evaluation as a condition to return to school. He didn’t choose to do that, and indeed, it’s unclear whether a mental health assessment would have revealed him to have a problem.
The political solution – waiting for him to break a law – and the mental health solution – making him go to an office for assessment – both proved inadequate in this case. While improved policing and improved mental health services surely have the potential to help in cases like these, we are naïve to see either as a solution.
I’ll make two modest proposals – (1) understanding violence as a public health problem is an important addition to policing and psychiatric services, and (2) we need ways to understand Loughner’s behavior that stretch from mental states to social life, from our brains to our culture.
People who deal with violence on a regular basis, who search for solutions beyond punishment and treatment, have settled on a broad public health approach that relies on a mix of community interventions, social work, anthropological insight, and other factors.
The Loughner case can be understood as an excellent example of a main epidemiological insight – the greater the number of risk factors, generally the worse the outcome. Social isolation, loss of schooling, difficult parental relations, an aggressive father, a lack of mental coherence, social outbursts, alcohol and drug use, and run-ins with law enforcement are all factors that appear in the Loughner case.
To address these complexities, you need a comprehensive approach. Take the Violence Intervention Program:
Members of the intervention team include social workers, a parole and probation agent and physicians specializing in psychiatry, trauma, epidemiology and preventive health. They visit with the patient throughout the hospitalization and on a regular basis after discharge, helping to provide access to services like substance abuse rehabilitation, job training and G.E.D. tutoring and offering the support necessary for successful completion of the patient’s plan.
Similarly, recasting the issue of gun control as a public health problem can reveal new insights into how we might think about dealing with guns, and the statistical increase in violence that are associated with guns. Put differently, a public health can give us political leverage, as well as a different way of viewing problems.
But a public health approach needs to be complemented by better understanding of the problem at hand.
Let me highlight a few statements that illustrate why:
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.”
Hate-crime experts say they’ve seen such mergers of ideology and personal motives result in other attacks, including the shooting of two Army recruiters in Little Rock, Ark.
Understanding the link between violent acts and mental disorder requires consideration of its association with other variables such as substance abuse, environmental stressors, and history of violence.
Language meets up with predispositions, ideology and personal motives mix, mental problems and environmental stressors mix. We need an understanding of violence that can stretch as far as the actual reality of violence.
There are two basic approaches here. One that matches itself more closely with public health and with the number-crunching of a lot of variables to get at the constellation that best represents someone like Loughner. Developmental science, social neuroscience, mental health epidemiology, and like fields have all embraced interdisciplinary, data-driven approaches. Their aim is to provide views from the outside, an objective recounting of what we know about categories of people like Loughner.
The second approach is one represented best by what we do here at Neuroanthropology. It is an approach that draws on what we know from neuroscience and political science, and mixes that with a focus on Loughner as a person who has intentions and meanings that go beyond either his mental states or political orientations. Then it grounds the whole investigative endeavor in the particular time and place of Loughner’s actions.
Both approaches are important. Developmental science is closer to a public health orientation. It relies more on statistics and risk factor language that are part-and-parcel of government bureaucracy. Neuroanthropology is closer to the Violence Intervention Program, and offers recourse to cultural and social views, such as a culture of anger or institutional violence, that form part of the larger picture.
The first risks turning Loughner into a psychosocial problem to be solved by science and political action from the outside. The second risks a lack of generalization, and calls for action that can rely more on political orientation than the state of the science. But both stare squarely at the breadth of a problem like violence and don’t blink. Neither the reductive blinders of one-cause theories nor the comfort blanket of simplistic explanations get in the way of finding a better version of truth.
Why Did Loughner Do It?
The past week has challenged me. I have seen the over-reach of the mental health model firsthand. I am left thinking of it as incomplete, and fundamentally flawed. It will continue to focus on brain and mental states as explanations for behavior, and that will continue to match well with politicians’ and everyday people’s need to cast blame on individuals.
A “mental illness” approach alone leaves out so much that is important – it leaves out social context, it leaves out the political dimensions, it leaves out Loughner’s own views. He becomes a pathology, and our understanding of him a delusion that distances us from him and politics from responsibility. It wipes out the intentions and acts of this man, and locating our understanding of what he did in more human terms.
It isn’t “who he is” that is the problem – a mentally unstable person in the midst of schizophrenic delusion or a political radical inspired by far-right ideology to exercise his gun rights against an illegitimate government. Rather than looking for explanations from politics or from mental illness, we should center our explanations on what he actually did and experienced. Too often we take these things as what needs to be explained. In this case, as in so many others, what he did is both the problem to understand and a central part of the explanation.
This shift to focusing on his behavior is probably the hardest shift in our understanding to make – to forget our Western individualism and to focus on actions done in particular contexts.
But it is what the research shows us.
No profile, no type of person, can fit all the attackers, and any profile would include far too many people who are not dangerous, the researchers found…
The Secret Service did find that the attackers shared behaviors in common. The researchers are saying there is not a type of person, but there is a type of action, such as acquiring a weapon, and communicating their intentions (though not a threat) to others.
In other words, what people do matters.
What they experience matters too. In Jared Loughner’s case, one of his most typical experiences, the one he expressed publicly, was anger. One of the main places Loughner expressed himself was on online forums linked to specific video games.
Even in a setting that includes the raw and often raunchy thoughts of young men, Mr. Loughner’s postings were startling. They show an obsession with language, a hatred of the educational system and aggression—all of which later became themes of videos posted by Mr. Loughner on YouTube in the months before the shooting…
Anger increasingly permeated his postings… On May 9 at 2:00 a.m., he asked: “Does anyone have aggression 24/7?”
Acts of violence and feelings of anger matter. And if we accept this, that what people do and experience matters, then we move onto a series of other question. What role do social relationships play? Here his isolation from his neighborhood, and what is likely a difficult relationship with an aggressive father, come into light. How does his life intersect with social institutions? However we decide to apportion blame, it does appear that his fraught interactions and then suspension from community college are central to Loughner’s story.
The list could go on – language and his ideas about government, his learning about and use of guns (which appears to have happened later in his young life), and so forth. Rather than a never-ending list, what I want to point out is that I have focused on everyday aspects of his life – what he does, his emotions, his relationships, the institutions that shaped his life.
These things are closer to his own life, and permit us to go inwards towards the specific functioning of his brain and out towards the specific functioning of his society. These are where we need to find our explanations, and our answers for what to do, about what Jared Lee Loughner did.
Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.
We live mediated lives, lives lived through media and institutions and bodies of established and contested knowledge. Casting stones is a very human act – he was mentally ill, extreme rhetoric is to blame, the school should have done more. But I have written this post to help rise to that calling – to expand our moral imaginations.
Three things have deeply challenged me this week. I’ve realized that after one hundred years of great success, the mental health model has triumphed publicly and failed scientifically. Violence is not a mental health problem. The causes of human behavior cannot be reduced to only mental states. Yet within minutes of the shootings, Loughner was declared crazy. Many people, scientists, professionals, and politicians alike, have lined up behind this discourse. It has extraordinary institutional and cultural weight. And it mis-diagnoses the man and the problem. But I am hopeful that we are at the start of building a better approach to understanding why people do what they do.
I believe the Secret Service is right. Actions matter. But most law enforcement is about punishing acts after the fact, after someone has broken the law. Most social regulation focuses on acts, on behaviors and words, in an informal manner, such as the commentators on Loughner’s internet postings or the students in his classes. How we build an infrastructure, an institutional mediation, of acts like violence, substance abuse, and other behaviors that do not fall well into the mental health model is a challenge facing us right now.
Finally, I am confronted by this photo – Jason Loughner’s mugshot. It shocked me viscerally when I saw it. And immediately I knew so many who saw it would take it as confirmation of his being mentally ill.
But I ask you to look closer at the photo. At first glance his eyes appear deeply disturbed, and his smile sickening. That was my initial reaction. I too have the mental health model in my head.
But I have known young killers, people who killed others in sudden fits and in deliberate acts.
The crazed look in his eyes? It says little about what he was like before the shooting, when a cop stopped him and a taxi driver got change from him. But this is a man who just shot someone in the head on purpose, and then purposely kept on shooting into a crowd. A man who has just killed.
His eyes show how much he can’t make sense of what happened – of his own act of vehement brutality. That is what I think.
And that smile? Oh, that’s the conscious part. He did what he set out to do, and now he can twist his smile at all of us. He has sown chaos and hurt. He has struck back. It is a smile of defiance and satisfaction. And I do find it sickening.
But it is not the portrait of a man totally subsumed by mental illness. It is a man who has committed murder, and forced that smile on his face afterwards. Who smiles back at the police and the public looking on.
So, what are we going to do about it?