Stupid Talk and the Tucson Massacre

by Bill Brenner on January 14, 2011

I’ve held off for almost a week. I didn’t want to write about the events in Tucson because I felt a lot of folks were already exploiting the tragedy for page views. Plus, I’ve written already about mentally sick people who turn to murder.

Mood music:


I also found the Tucson case too upsetting to write about. I usually need time to process upsetting events. I don’t know any of the victims, but my heart goes out to them and their friends and family. I also pray that Rep. Giffords makes a full recovery. If she does, she’ll become a powerful source of inspiration. The fact that she had already demonstrated a fearless streak inspires me. (Her office was vandalized after her vote on health care reform last year, but she didn’t cower and pull back from public contact.)

I’ve decided to dive in for two reasons.

One, Erin and I were discussing the “blood libel” tag Sarah Palin has been using to describe accusations that this kid was driven to violence by Tea Party rhetoric. The second reason is that my friend Mary Ann Davidson shared a column in which conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes of the ridiculous nature of the accusations flying around.

As someone who knows what it’s like to be mentally ill, I’d like to say something about what I see as stupid talk.

To those who blame this affair on the often rancorous debate between the left and right, you’re off the mark.

True, the political debate in this country does get out of control, but most of the time nobody gets hurt. I consider myself a moderate, my father-in-law is conservative and Erin is somewhere to the left of both of us. We don’t get into knife fights out in the streets because we don’t agree on some things.

It’s the same, for the most part, nationally. Democrats and Republicans fight it out, and for the most part it’s a peaceful discourse. The system works the way the founding fathers intended. When someone says otherwise, it’s usually because their side isn’t getting its way.

A lot of name-calling happens, but the violence is rare. It happens, like it did last week. And when it does, people rush to blame it on the nastiness of the politics of the day. In this case, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement are the evil instigators.

Read Krauthammer‘s article, because in my opinion he’s right. Especially when he says this:

As killers go, Jared Loughner is not reticent. Yet among all his writings, postings, videos and other ravings – and in all the testimony from all the people who knew him – there is not a single reference to any of these supposed accessories to murder.

Not only is there no evidence that Loughner was impelled to violence by any of those upon whom Paul KrugmanKeith Olbermannthe New York Times, the Tucson sheriff and other rabid partisans are fixated. There is no evidence that he was responding toanything, political or otherwise, outside of his own head.

A climate of hate? This man lived within his very own private climate. “His thoughts were unrelated to anything in our world,” said the teacher of Loughner’s philosophy class at Pima Community College. “He was very disconnected from reality,” said classmate Lydian Ali. “You know how it is when you talk to someone who’s mentally ill and they’re just not there?” said neighbor Jason Johnson. “It was like he was in his own world.”

His ravings, said one high school classmate, were interspersed with “unnerving, long stupors of silence” during which he would “stare fixedly at his buddies,”reported the Wall Street Journal. His own writings are confused, incoherent, punctuated with private numerology and inscrutable taxonomy. He warns of government brainwashing and thought control through “grammar.” He was obsessed with “conscious dreaming,” a fairly good synonym for hallucinations.

This is not political behavior. These are the signs of a clinical thought disorder – ideas disconnected from each other, incoherent, delusional, detached from reality.

Krauthammer gets right to the heart of the matter in that last paragraph. This tragedy happened because a mentally sick kid got his hands on a gun and found a place where there’d be a lot of people to use it on. He may have targeted Giffords, but politics had nothing to do with it. He just wanted to kill someone high-profile and get attention.

A couple other moments in history come to mind.

John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981 to impress actress Jodie Foster. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has been institutionalized ever since. He didn’t care about Reagan’s politics. His brain didn’t work right. And in his mentally-impaired world, he got fixated on Jodie Foster and wanted her attention. Shooting the president, in his mind, made perfect sense because of the publicity it would bring.

Should we have blamed it on the movie “Taxi Driver” and fought to ban it and movies like it?

The kids Charles Manson brainwashed into killing for him were led to believe The Beatles were telling them to do it in “The White Album.” Manson turned their young, tormented and impressionable minds to mush with drugs and made them believe a war was coming and that they had to kill.

Should we have blamed it on The Beatles and banned ‘The White Album”?

Hell no.

The point is that when someone is mentally sick, it’s easy for them to fixate on a person or movement. Those who turn violent will always be motivated by something based on religion, politics or something to come from the film or music industries.

When I was at my worst, I blamed everyone for my problems. I was convinced people at work were out to undercut me. I was convinced that certain family members had it out for me. I listened to a lot of metal music back then, as I do now. Sometimes, I would listen to the music and consider turning violent on whoever I was blaming for my unhappy life.

But I never would have carried something out because — thank God — I’ve always had a strong enough moral compass that would only allow me to go so far. My mental state was damaged and would stay that way until I sought help. But it was never so far gone that I ever would have carried out some of what I was thinking about. I’ve always had just enough sanity to know better. 

Some people don’t have that, and they’re usually the ones who pick up the weapon. They have a choice, and they choose to do evil.

That’s what happened in Tucson.

Don’t blame it on the political divide. That’s just stupid.

Instead, try to see it for what it is: An evil act perpetrated by someone whose mind was so far gone that anything would have inspired him to commit murder.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Me January 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm

As a Canadian, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said: “This tragedy happened because a mentally sick kid got his hands on a gun…”. GUN CONTROL. What’s with you Americans and making the right to carry arms a part of your civil rights? It is a mystery to me.

Stu January 15, 2011 at 6:19 am

Yes, let’s be thankful there was no violence before the advent of firearms.

billbrenner1970 January 15, 2011 at 6:31 am

Well, before that there were sticks and boulders, but the bigger point here is motive. Some say this guy’s motive was politics. My take is that he is a mentally sick kid who wanted attention just like Hinkley and Reagan.

marymary January 15, 2011 at 7:26 am

You are correct in feeling disdain for the sequel to the Arizona killings. The event immediately became an opportunity for political advantage seeking. Krauthammer, as an observer and as a psychiatrist, has it right. As vile as I found the yammering of the elected and the media to be, I am greatly concerned about not only the medicalization of bad character but also the apparent groundswell of enthusiasm for lockin’ ’em up. The “mentally ill,” that is, whoever they may be, which may be in the eyes of whoever holds the keys. This has happened before, to no good end. I was astounded that individuals with no medical training whatsoever and without any contact were able to diagnose the shooter. Smarter than I will ever be.

Thanks for posting what needs to be said.

Stu January 15, 2011 at 12:09 pm


I get your bigger point and agree totally. I am simply against blaming this on firearms as much as I am against blaming it on political rhetoric.


Martin January 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm


I absolutely agree with you that only the shooter can and should be held responsible for what happened.

That being said I think it’s high time that people on all parts of the political spectrum need to continue debate and discussion but also need to avoid language that “gives permission” for those on the edge of sanity to take action. In the current climate that would mean avoiding phrases like “Second Amendment Solutions” and “lock and load” while still actively pursuing ones own political direction. Nothing is gained by using this language and it can serve to lower inhibitions of those who are contemplating action.

Now, would that have stopped the Tucson shooter? Probably not…but it doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do….

billbrenner1970 January 16, 2011 at 2:46 am

Excellent points, Martin. And I agree.

Bert Knabe January 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I wish there were more people who would look at the actual source – the shooter – before they looked at the “environment.” Environment matters, but if you never make it outside your own head, that’s the environment that determines your actions. Even if you make it outside your own head, you still make the choices.

Anna January 17, 2011 at 6:28 am

Bill, thanks for your take on this. When I first heard about the shooting, a friend of mine directed me to Sarah Palin’s Take Back the 20 page and I became really angry. That’s just irresponsible.

I think you’re right, though, in that the missing part of this conversation is the part about how broken our mental health system is. This young man should have received services. It seems like there were a lot of things that were missing.

Thanks again,

Lisa January 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm

I’m very liberal, but yeah, Palin ain’t to blame. The kid had been fixated on her since 2007.
i think we have about enough gun control with background checks (unfortunately he was never institutionalized, so he had a clean record). I’m scared to death of guns, but I believe in the right to own a gun for protection and a rifle for hunting. If they were banned outright, there would be a black market and probably end up like prohibition.

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