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Dr. Leo Rangell Headshot

Cool

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It is already on its way to becoming history. Tucson follows in a series that includes Columbine, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech -- not to forget the continuous streams of smaller aggressions to keep the genus going. Wanton acts of terror, to the point of shocking deliberate murders that seem inexplicable to normal thinking.

And the perpetual question: is man good or evil?

Columnists and many others ask: Could this one have been seen in advance? Could anything have been done to prevent it?

Our President is a "cool" one. Not cold, but with his emotions controlled in public. Not completely. The mention of Christy brings the moisture to his eyes.

He has met every barb, challenge, rejection or crisis thus far with a straight frame, his head tilted up, his mouth tight, his face grim, his will determined not to crack.

For this, he is both admired and criticized. The ambivalent public does not have one unified reaction about how to live or lead with emotions. Bush's distance from Katrina played against him. Giuliani, under his helmet in the crowd in the smoke of the 9/11 horror, was catapulted to become a national candidate by his behavior. Senator Muskie dropped out of contention for the Presidency when he cried, hurt by attacks against his wife. Rep. Boehner, the new speaker of the House, emotes easily, copiously. While this might be about internal pride and appreciation, as "crying at a happy ending," he is dubbed on one front page as the new "Wheezer of the House".

Howard Dean was too angry; his human outburst in public did not sit well, where a "stiff upper lip", or political statements of inconsistency, or selective distortions, or overtly insincere ones, are the accepted, or even the required currency of communication. Public officials incur wrath and criticism at a show of emotions, but an equal amount of criticism for holding them back.

What was universally praised and applauded and appreciated about Obama in Tucson was that he spared one side as having a larger part to play over the other in stimulating protest that was able to turn violent. Both sides shared the applause and praise and unity. At least at the time of mourning, so shortly after the acute crisis.

In fact, Sarah Palin was right, that this crime could occur in any individual, and the "blame", if there is to be one, belongs to him alone.

No one will ever know how bipartisan the reaction of appreciative relief would have been had the victim been in the opposite camp -- how much the other side would have resisted a self-righteous position. One knew a more differentiated, polarized response would come later. Our country has not yet passed the test of a severely-dichotomized nation.

One question is not, or should not be opposed. What does the science of mental functioning have to contribute, to shed light on the objective facts of the phenomenon under the microscope, in the hope, even if a vain one, of accelerating some degree of control of such outbursts by a process of reason?

This comes up following each new tragedy, however rare it seems to be to sufficiently ponder an answer. In the lively development of psychological understanding over the past century, a theory of the psychology of action remains the most murky and the last to be focused upon and understood.

Before this brings a torrent of disappointment, if not criticism and confusion, consider the magnitude of the goal. There are 300 million of us in this country alone, and no two are alike. Not even identical twins live the same lives; differences in life experiences are as frequent as what is shared. While many facets of behavior can be predicted based on the past, one can never be certain of the next outward action by a specific individual.

Nor can this be explained in retrospect. A pathologist cannot point to the crucial differences between the brains of an Einstein or a Hitler.

We daily see in the lives of political figures the instability of the most successful-looking families, as much on the public as on the private stage. Governors, candidates for the highest offices, leading secular or even religious leaders, moral models to millions of people, turn out, to our repeated shock, to have clay feet. We are not surprised to see some of them go to jail.

I would like to point to and at least register the essential moment in explanatory theory trying to understand the nature of an impending act, as this takes its place in the framework of the modern mental sciences. In summary, this is mainly from a composite of psychoanalysis, dynamic psychiatry and psychology, what these disciplines share in common in explaining human action. With all its limitations, the amount we know of this area is as much as still resides in mystery.

The theory generally applied and accepted by this composite of mental sciences, is that human action is the final external psychic product of a universal process that consists of a series of preceding internal, unconscious psychological events. The unconscious is a complex realm that plays a part in every human mind. Every intended action, or decision, is preceded by an unconscious process of "trial action", testing the action for its consequences, to receive back a judgment of safety or danger. To accomplish this, the intended action is scanned against all memories of previous instances of the same acts, to judge previous experiences of what can follow from them. The signal received is anxiety or the lack of it. The brain behind this activity is quicker and more complex than any computer manufactured by man. Results are almost instantaneous.

After time, from long previous experience, some actions become quite automatic. We do not think much about crossing the street. Unless we are suddenly in London, we look first in the right direction. In a foreign country, our learned automaticities and facilities are thrown off.

After a signal of safety or anxiety, the remainder of the sequence is permitted to run its course. Outward manifestations of the mental activity emerge in some combination of thoughts, feelings and acts. The first two remain quite private; the latter affects the outer world.

Think what reflection Jared's intended act should have called for. But here a long, previous build-up of his own inner pathological version of consequences played their decisive part. He would not be apprehended and punished; the pernicious government would be put out of business. While the individual Jared Lee Loughner himself is responsible for carrying thought into action, stemming from the extreme nature of his delusions, it still seems a stretch of denial to believe that the long external input of extreme political rhetoric played no role in sustaining the sick ideation behind the act.

How can such distortions and misconceptions be known and controlled in 300 million people?

We actually do not know how many such aberrant actions have indeed been intercepted, by professionals confronted at various stages of such proclivities, from therapists to security agents. It is only action executed outward into society of which we finally, and suddenly, become aware. A bystander during the fracas who had a concealed weapon, almost shot a wrong person in the confusion, but his hand was stopped at the last split-second by someone next to him.

Another recent article from this site by Jason Linkins stresses preference for "a slow and thoughtful process" over hasty legislation stemming impulsively from this event. I obviously agree. The built-in mechanism of delay and check that normally takes place before anyone does anything is the safeguard of the human race, or we would be living in even more mayhem than we do. It is in pathological cases in which it is either bypassed or mis-used that we are in trouble.

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