January 19, 2011

From politics to psychiatry: laying blame in Arizona

On Jan. 8, 22-year-old Jared Loughner opened fire on a meet-and-greet with Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. Not quite two weeks later, Giffords is in a stable condition and Loughner is in custody, but the media is still rife with speculation as to the shooting’s causes.

Many analysts cite Loughner’s questionable mental health as a catalyst for his actions. His school records indicate frequent disruptive behavior and a strict interpretation of constitutional rights. For example, a report from a security officer at Pima Community College states that Loughner believed he should earn full credit for assignments no matter what he wrote because of his rights under the First Amendment.

While the above may seem like nothing more than radicalism, it becomes more striking when coupled with Loughner’s internet activity. In September, Loughner posted a video online entitled “Pima Community College—Genocide/Scam—Free Education—Broken United States Constitution,” in which he calls the college a “genocide school.”

“I think blame lies with the shooter, definitely,” sophomore Valerie James said. “But I haven’t really read much about it.”

Although Loughner has not undergone any sort of psychological testing, many psychologists believe he expresses paranoid schizophrenic tendencies that contributed to his decision to open fire at the Tucson meet-and-greet. Some have accused Pima of letting Loughner slip through the cracks and not paying enough attention to the signs of mental illness.

Assistant professor of Political Science Andrew Civettini is hesitant to say that mental illness played a large role in the shooting, pointing to a 2005 study done by the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation in Evanston, Ill.  The study found that, although a relationship exists between mental illness and violent behavior, gender and ethnicity are much better predictors of violent tendencies.  This would seem to indicate the Loughner’s mental state was unlikely to be the sole determinant of his actions.  

“Did mental illness contribute [to the shooting]?  Assuming [Loughner] was mentally ill, yes,” Civettini said.  “But to conclude, as the media has done, that mental illness is the single cause of what happened is ridiculous.  It flies in the face of any logic to pick out one reason and claim that other factors did not contribute.”

These other factors may include the state of American political discourse. Sarah Palin’s controversial map, released prior to the 2010 midterm elections showing crosshairs over certain electoral districts, has been a topic of increasing controversy. In response, Palin released a video statement on Jan. 12 in which she accused her opponents of “blood libel,” a term that has traditionally referred to the myth that Jews use the blood of Christian children in their rituals. Giffords is Jewish.

Sophomore Kaitlyn Duling believes that too much emphasis has been placed on politics and not enough on the circumstances that allowed the shooting to happen.

“People have been saying [the shooting] has a lot to do with the political climate and have been blaming Sarah Palin, but I think that’s quite a stretch,” she said. “The blame…possibly lies with whoever allowed him to buy a gun. Obviously, he shouldn’t have been carrying [it].”

Still, it is difficult to ignore the increasing polarization of American politics that has occurred in recent months. An article published by The New York Times on Jan. 8 notes that comments like Congress hopeful Rick Barber’s “gather your armies” (directed against the Obama administration), while not representative of most Americans’ opinions, do indicate a fascination with hyperbole and rhetorical flairs that spread like wildfire on the blogosphere.

It seems equally far-fetched to say that the words of a few politicians led Loughner to shoot Giffords, but when coupled with Loughner’s own extreme views, it is difficult to ignore the correlation.

“In the simplest terms, the only person to blame is the shooter,” senior Sam Claypool said. “However, I do think violent and hateful discourse in the political arena creates more of a likelihood of violent action.”

Still, attacking political discourse is unlikely to achieve productive results. Placing blame, after all, will not change what happened.

“Blame on a particular individual…and having sides blaming sides is not positive,” Claypool added. “It only enhances the hateful discourse.”

Anna Meier

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