Last weekend, Jared Lee Loughner, an odd fellow in Tucson, shot a member of the U.S. Congress and a number of other people, killing or severely wounding several. There is now a hubbub of debate over who he is and why he did it.
Too many commentators and politicians seem eager to proclaim Loughner mentally unbalanced, without enough information for anyone to make such an assessment reliably or usefully.
There's a debate about whether such killings are crazy or political, but in America, most are crazy AND political; the one doesn't exclude the other. Even the looniest assassins usually have motives expressed in political terms, even if garbled. Sometimes it's a specific individual, usually of political significance, they want to see dead; sometimes it's the political significance of the victim’s office that is being attacked. But the fact that motives are political doesn't make them any less personal or idiosyncratic. Everyone's politics is a personal combination of deeply felt ideas (sensible or idiotic).
What do we know about the shooter ?
When Loughner recently left the community college he’d been attending, he’d had 6 episodes with campus security for disruption in the preceding 7 months. He had posted on YouTube that the college was a fraudulent scam with illiterate teachers and students, disrupted classes by shouting irrational statements, and frightened some teachers and students.
So there were warning signs of something wrong, but there are so many automatic protections for such offending individuals, that nobody seems to have looked at the larger picture.
On his MySpace page, his poor grammar and incoherent thoughts are strange. "The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar," he declared, and: "No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver! No! I won't trust in God!"
The curious shaven-headed, grinning portrait most recently released looks like a man revelling in the attention, and almost trying to appear nightmarishly nuts, not like a schizophrenic or other seriously mentally ill person. (Usually, really ill people don't look so assertive and confident ). But only time and careful assessment will tell.
That he was troubled and muddled seems clear already. He registered to vote in 2006, as an independent. About three years ago he attended a meeting held by his victim Giffords, asking an incoherent question: "What is government if words have no meaning?" He was apparently angered when, having read the question, she had no answer for it.
"Not Guilty by reason of Insanity" or "Guilty but Insane"
Premeditation would seem to undercut the claim of insanity (a legal, not clinical term, which is not merely about the presence of a mental illness, but about its being so severe as to render an individual unable to tell right from wrong). It's already clear that an insanity defence will be considered by his lawyers, but it may not be too easy to use.
Since the widespread dissatisfaction when John Hinckley succeeded in using the Insanity Defence after shooting President Ronald Reagan and others, this defence has been made harder to use. Among other changes, the burden of proof is now on the Defence, not needing the prosecution to disprove the claim. These tougher federal laws apply to some of his charges, such as shooting a member of Congress.
But the shooting of bystanders is a local matter. And Arizona law does not allow the defence of "not guilty by reason of insanity", the traditional insanity defence. Instead, it allows a verdict of "Guilty, but insane", which sends the convicted person to a secure mental institution, but provides for them to be transferred to an ordinary prison if they recover enough for hospital discharge. Many people would find this more satisfactory, fearing a multiple killer who responds well to treatment and is released early. Arizona law also allows for a death penalty.
Federal prosecutors, involved because he killed a federal judge and a congressional aide, and tried to assassinate a congresswoman, are expected to ask for the death penalty, especially because there are multiple victims, with one younger than 15. If, as seems likely, Loughner faces charges both under federal law and local law, pleadings that suit him in the one case might be unhelpful in the other.
Guns and Lamentations
America, persisting in its warm embrace of guns, seems to consider such periodic episodes of violence and mayhem like natural disasters – unfortunate but not requiring a serious re-evaluation of how the society works.
The events tend to be treated as exceptions, rather than as the extreme end of a significant continuum. It is too facile to see the individual as deranged and irrelevant, as entirely Outside society.
Lamentation isn't enough of a response. Placing flowers and teddy bears at the spot, along with sweet messages the victims will never read, is also useless, and is done for ourselves, not to improve the situation.
Assassinations and attempts against politicians are commonplace in America. And again it seems that highly unstable and hostile people have easy access to lethal weapons.
In South Africa violence is endemic and unusually wide-spread. It's actually rather less directed towards politicians than one might expect, but there is a distinctly politicised sub-text in much of the social violence that is so usual here.
As one of the cute characters in the American comic-strip Pogo said during the Vietnam era: " We have met the enemy – and he is us."
- Prof M.A. Simpson, Cybershrink, January 2011