Several years ago an accomplished network journalist told me every good story needs a hero and a clear set of villains. As investigators, journalists, pundits and the public struggle to make sense of the horrific shootings that left a congresswoman critically injured, 6 dead, and others wounded it is natural for many to seek out a tangible accomplice because it is difficult to emotionally process that a negligible figure like Jared Loughner could do such great harm more or less on his own. However, for many self-styled assassins it is their solitary ability to take down powerful symbols that make noteworthy killings attractive to them in the first place.
While it is still early, the most prominent emerging accomplice in this attack is for many also the least satisfying: mental illness. Unlike an actual human accomplice or a firm relational link to a political group or larger extremist organization, solitary mental distress derprives us, the secondary indirect victims, of the satisfaction of an additional clear and more imposing figure to direct our moral outrage. Over the last several decades there have been a string of such mentally disturbed violent figures who targeted victims that doubled as institutional symbols. These include Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, Jewish school shooter Bufford Furrow, Little Rock Army shooter Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremmer, Capitol Hill Shooter Eugene Weston, and Reagan shooter John Hinckley. The psychologically dangerous "extremist" is one of three main categories I employ when training law enforcement. The three main categories are listed below, and usually one is the primary element with an offender, with the at least one other playing a more minor supporting role:
- The Ideologically Motivated (Religious, Political or Hybrid)
- The Psychologically Dangerous (Sociopath or Cognitively Impaired)
- Personal Benefit or Revenge
During the first stages of investigations authorities necessarily must cast wide nets and the media sometimes, uneccessarily or prematurely latch on to them. Is there a wider plot and what involvement did hate groups or political adversaries play in the attack? While the situation is fluid, at this point any real connection to extremist groups, like American Renaissance appears, if at all, to be at best, indirect or minimal. Much has also been made of Sarah Palin's regrettable sophomoric target crosshair map and her incredibly infantile defense of it, yet we don't know whether Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter ever saw it. Similarly, we do not know, if he ever saw a January 6, 2011 post on the leftwing Daily Kos entitled. "My CongressWOMAN voted against Nancy Pelosi! And is now DEAD to me!"
Even if Loughner did see these retrograde images, he was a ticking timebomb well before any of these postings made it on to the web. He reportedly had an occult oriented altar with a fake skull at his home, was rejected by the military, and booted out of community college with a request delivered by police that he not reenroll without a doctor's note asserting he was not a threat. He also apparently had contact with Congresswoman Giffords as far back as 2007. While he did reference among other things, a jumble of racist and anti-government concepts in his far flung webpostings, they appear at first glance to be more a product of a severely impaired psychologically distressed person than that of coherent idealogue. He was previously described as a leftwinger. Kent Slinker a former logic professor of Loughner's told Slate that he was "someone whose brains were scrambled." In any event, the invocation of an amalgam of conflict oriented anti-authoritarian fringe conspiratorial theories and repetitive behaviors is probably more of a symptom of his dysfunctional pathology than a cause. These cobbled "political" manifestations often revolve around seemingly irrelevant or minor facts or rituals that are frequently overlaid on to an underlying mix of isolation, obsession, and paranoia.
To be sure mental distress as a primary element of this attack in no way absolves the role that rancorous political vitriol can play in amping up and directing irrational aggression, particularly by those who are profoundly mentally ill. Indeed, the injection of subtle and not so subtle justifications for violence in discourse, the demonization of political opponents and peaceful processes, a lack of meaningful interchange, and the disturbing centrality of bizarre conspiracy theories, can assuredly be an additional accelerant to a volatile aggressive personality. We simply don't know at this time what role that may have played here. What we do know is that such discourse isn't helpful under any circumstances. Moreover, and perhaps more troubling is how did such a disturbed person fail to get adequate treatment, obtain a gun and shoot an unprotected congressperson and her constituents. As Congress is poised to examine radicalization, it might be beneficial to look at the role mental distress plays in catapulting fringe figures to violence.
Also of Interest:
Democracy in the Crosshairs
The Ft. Hood Massacre: A Lone-Wolf Jihad of One?
Partial List of Threats, Violence and Death Involving Members of Congress Since 1850
- May 22, 1856: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner over the head with a thick gold tipped cane in the Senate chambers after the Massachusetts senator insulted South Carolina's senator (and Brooks' uncle) over slavery. While Wilson got his reelection coffers filled as a result of his outburst, South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of canes to replace the one he split over Sumner's head.
- September 8, 1935: U.S. Senator Huey P. Long was mortally wounded after being shot by Dr. Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of a political opponent. Weiss was killed by bodyguards at the scene, while Long died two days later.
- March 1, 1954: Five Congressmen; Alvin M. Bentley (R-Michigan), Clifford Davis (D-Tennessee), Ben F. Jensen (R-Iowa), George Hyde Fallon (D-Maryland) and Kenneth A. Roberts (D-Alabama) were shot and wounded by Puerto Rican nationalists in the visitor's gallery. After a commutation of their sentences by President Eisenhower, all were released in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. The most famous of the shooters, Lolita LeBron died last August in Puerto Rico.
- June 5, 1968: U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was fatally injured in Los Angeles immediately following his victory in the California Democratic primary. Kennedy died the next day and his killer Sirhan Sirhan remains in prison for life in California.
- 1976: New York City Congressman Edward I. Koch, and future mayor, was allegedly targeted in an assassination plot out of Uruguay after he suggested that American aid to the South American nation be suspended because of misconduct. Koch, who later would become mayor of New York, was serving on a Congressional subcommittee involved in formulating foreign aid.
- November 17, 1978: California Democrat Leo Ryan in Guyana on an official investigation ofJim Jones People's Temple cult becomes the first Congressman killed in the line of duty after he and four others, including NBC News reporter Don Harris are gunned down in an attack at a desolate airstrip. Following the shooting the largest non-natural loss of civilian lives takes place when 900 die in a forced mass suicide in nearby Jonestown.
- March 14, 1980: Former U.S. Congressman Allard Lowenstein, 51, was shot to death in New York by a paranoid mentally ill former college student who had known the congressman while he was employed at Stanford prior to his congressional service. No congressperson has been murdered since then.
- September 1, 1983: Georgia Democratic Congressman Larry McDonald was killed after Korean Airlines Flight 007 enroute to South Korea was shot down by Russian fighters killing all on board after veering into Soviet airspace. His death has been the subject of conspiracy theories.
- July 24, 1998: Russell Eugene Weston, a mentally ill paranoid shooter with a distrust of government killed two U.S. Capitol Police officers as he pushed his way toward Congressional officers. He is still institutionalized and has never stood trial.
- November 2000: Alex Curtis, a young San Diego white supremacist was charged with targeting Congressman Robert Filner and others in a campaign of intimidation and harassment. He later pled guilty to related charges.
- 2001: Two members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), Earl Krugel and leader Irv Rubin, were arrested for, among other things, planning to bomb the office of Arab-American California Republican Congressman Darryl Issa. Issa, Both Rubin, who was awaiting trail and Krugel, who plead to lesser offenses, died while incarcerated. Issa, still serves in Congress and is a vigorous critic of President Obama
- September 11, 2001: United Flight 93 crashes in western Pennsylvania killing all onboard, during a thwarted hijacking. Initial reports suggest the U.S. Capitol was the target, although later reports say the target was the White House.
- April 2010: U.S. Senator Patty Murray was the subject of this telephone threat, "There are many people out there that want you dead. Just remember that as you are politicing [sic] for your reelection. It only takes one piece of lead... Kill the ... senator! Kill the ... senator! I'll donate the lead. Now that you've passed your healthcare bill, let the violence begin." In the last year other senators and congress persons including Rep. Giffords were targeted for property attacks or threats including gunshots at offices. The senate reports bona fide threats against Senators increased in 2010 to 49, up from 29 in the previous year.
- January 8, 2011: Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 40, is critically wounded and six others, including federal district court Judge John Roll, were killed in a shooting spree in Tuscon at a meet and greet for constituents by Jared Lee Loughner, an apparently deranged gunman who interspersed extremist rhetoric in his online ramblings.