The Other McCain

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Can ‘Vitriol’ Be Cured by ‘Civility’? And What Does It Have to Do With Tucson?

Posted on | January 10, 2011 | 37 Comments

“What, you can’t be crazy no more? Did we eliminate ‘crazy’ from the dictionary?”
Chris Rock

Lisa Graas ran the “Palin Twibe” Twitter account in support of Sarah Palin until Palin endorsed Rand Paul, whom Graas opposed in the Kentucky Senate primary. Graas knows a thing or two about “vitriol,” if we may borrow Sheriff Dupnik’s phrase. Pick a fight online with Ron Paul’s supporters, and you’ll get vitriol by the bushel basket. Lisa comments on the reaction to the Arizona shooting:

Incidentally, the way I found out about the shooting was through an avalanche of tweets calling Sarah Palin a ‘murderer’. I was even called a murderer for asking people not to point fingers of blame. There is certainly ‘vitriol’ . . . but it’s not coming from the direction the Left claims.

Indeed. The finger-pointing frenzy from the Left has not been quelled by the emerging picture of Loughner as a lone kook, an angry atheist who, according to acquaintances, was “left wing.” But more to the point — a point I’ve been trying to hammer home since Saturday — there is no evidence that “vitrol” in ordinary partisan politics had anything to do with Jared Lee Loughner’s crime. Loughner was mentally ill, a paranoid loser who fixated on Gabrielle Giffords as a scapegoat, as his friend Bryce Tierney has explained:

Tierney tells Mother Jones in an exclusive interview that Loughner held a years-long grudge against Giffords and had repeatedly derided her as a “fake.” Loughner’s animus toward Giffords intensified after he attended one of her campaign events and she did not, in his view, sufficiently answer a question he had posed, Tierney says. . . .
Loughner attended a Giffords “Congress in Your Corner” event in 2007. The affidavit also mentions that police searching a safe in Loughner’s home found a letter from Giffords’ office thanking the alleged shooter for attending a August 30, 2007, event.
Tierney, who’s also 22, recalls Loughner complaining about a Giffords event he attended during that period. He’s unsure whether it was the same one mentioned in the charges — Loughner “might have gone to some other rallies,” he says — but Tierney notes it was a significant moment for Loughner: “He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, ‘What is government if words have no meaning?'”
“He said, ‘Can you believe it, they wouldn’t answer my question.’ Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her.”Giffords’ answer, whatever it was, didn’t satisfy Loughner. “He said, ‘Can you believe it, they wouldn’t answer my question,’ and I told him, ‘Dude, no one’s going to answer that,'” Tierney recalls. “Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her.”

So Loughner was obsessed with a crazy theory of language. David Weigel examines the resemblance between Loughner’s ideas and the ideas of a fringe kook named David Wynn Miller.

The resemblance is rather remarkable, although it’s impossible to say positively whether Loughner’s lunacy was influenced by Miller’s madness. The point being that Loughner was a single dot far to the edge of a scatter chart, his beliefs so bizarre that it is impossible to classify them according to any conventional scheme of political ideology.

At any rate, Loughner’s specific motive for targeting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords appears deeply personal and idiosyncratic, dating back to the summer of 2007, and unrelated to anything said by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly or anyone else named in Keith Olbermann’s Saturday “Special Comment.”

To understand Loughner’s crime, please read — if you have not already done so — “Whatever Happened to Crazy?”

That’s what I wrote about J. Patrick Bedell, who committed “suicide by cop” at the Pentagon in March. While it is popular now to attribute mental illness to organic brain problems, the basic etiology of paranoia is not a neurobiological mystery: Losers who cannot accept responsibility for their own failures seek scapegoats onto whom they project blame.

Psychologically healthy people accept their own shortcomings and take responsibility for their own mistakes. By contrast, the person with paranoid tendencies is unable (or unwilling) to confront his own role in his failures, and instead seeks to blame his disappointments and unhappiness on others.

But this blame-shifting only compounds the problem: The paranoid becomes hostile toward those around him, prone to lash out irrationally at others, so that people don’t want to associate with him. The phrase “moody loner” captures this aspect of paranoid personality: The guy is a loner precisely because he is so moody. It is difficult to befriend someone who is always on the hunt for scapegoats to blame.

Eventually, the paranoid is left to himself, stewing over his (imagined) grievances against all those whom he blames for his misfortunes, a category that includes just about everybody. The whole world is against him, he believes, and if he decides to focus his blame on one person — in Loughner’s case, a congresswoman he met briefly at a 2007 public forum — the choice of scapegoat appears, at least to sane observers, to be utterly irrational.

Yet there is a crazy logic to Loughner’s targetting of Giffords: She was successful, popular and influential — qualities that Loughner could never hope to possess. And by attacking a famous person, Loughner believed he could end his life with an act that would give his life significance.

Make no mistake: Loughner believed he would be killed in his attack on Giffords. His murderous rampage was also intended as a suicide-by-cop.

Whatever you make of this pathetic and violent working-out of Lougner’s madness, it had nothing to do with politics in the usual sense. Loughner wasn’t watching Glenn Beck. He wasn’t taking his cues from Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement.

“Crazy” is not an ideology. And “civility” won’t cure schizophrenia.

UPDATE: Smitty gets quoted by Mark Krikorian at National Review. Meanwhile, I’m aggregating the latest: “The Suspect and the ‘Usual Suspects.'”


37 Responses to “Can ‘Vitriol’ Be Cured by ‘Civility’? And What Does It Have to Do With Tucson?”

  1. MD ConStrat
    January 10th, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    Way to spin out those smokescreens, RSM. I’d probably do the same thing if I were in your shoes. Kinda sucks when all those chickens come home to roost, doesn’t it?