Giffords shooting: senseless act of a troubled loner, or political violence?

Zachary Roth

So, was the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others at a public event in Tucson, Ariz., an act of political violence?  Two days later, there's no clear answer.

It's a crucial question, because if the shooting comes to be seen primarily as an expression of political extremism -- especially from the right -- pressure would increase to tone down heated political discourse. By contrast, if the Tucson massacre is defined as the senseless act of an isolated and mentally unstable young man, its impact may be more limited.

The debate already has been joined.

"It's time that this country take a little introspective look at the crap that comes out on radio and TV," Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Giffords supporter, told NBC. But Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," chastised Dupnik for what he called "speculation." And the back and forth isn't likely to end soon, because the information that has emerged about Jared Lee Loughner, 22, the lone suspect in the rampage, points in both directions.

On the one hand, Loughner's online postings, and comments recounted by those who knew him, suggest a vague anti-government paranoia, and partially track with some existing political conspiracy theories. But they don't fit neatly onto a right-left spectrum. And it seems clear that Loughner was deeply troubled and mentally unstable. His nihilistic anger and sense of social isolation in some ways recall the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine shootings -- an event that largely hasn't been seen as springing from political motivations.

As the New York Times put it Monday: "Investigators will have to wrestle with the difficult question of whether Mr. Loughner's parroting the views of extremist groups was somehow more a cause of the shootings or simply a symptom of a troubled life."

Click image to see more photos of Loughner


Loughner appeared to subscribe to a broadly anti-authoritarian, anti-government ideology, making any precise definition of his views risky. But there are specific overlaps between some of his online postings and two major strands of anti-government conspiracy thinking.

First, in the text of one video, Loughner calls for a "new currency," and declares: "No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver." And he charges that "the current government officials are in power for their currency."

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, told the Times that this position "is linked closely to the belief among militia supporters that the Federal Reserve is a completely private entity engaged in ripping off the American people."

As James Ridgeway of liberal Mother Jones magazine has noted, even the libertarian Rep. Ron Paul has warned against the use of paper money and urged a return to the gold standard. That connection has some of Paul's supporters worried, Ridgeway notes: "That [Loughner] was for gold and silver backed currency can only mean bad things for us," a commenter on wrote Saturday.

In another video, Loughner charged that "the government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar." Elsewhere, he discusses how to create a new language.

This tracks with the views of David Wynn Miller, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a conspiracy theorist whose ideas have been used by militias.  "[Loughner]'s probably been on my website, which has been up for about 11 years," Miller himself told the Times. "The government does control the schools, and the schools determine the grammar and language we use."

Miller's noti0n shares some affinities with the views of the Sovereign Citizens Movement, which believes itself to be outside state and federal laws. Adherents of the movement have been involved in violence both during the 1990s and more recently.

It's clear, then, that Loughner's brand of anti-government paranoia emerged in part out of existing extremist ideologies. Indeed, friends have said his anger at Giffords stemmed from a 2007 event at which he asked her, "What is government if words have no meaning?" He received what he saw as an unsatisfactory response.

Still, Loughner appeared to belong to no organized political group, let alone a political party. And it seems clear that his alienation from society -- which one former friend told the Wall Street Journal began around the age of 16 after a breakup with a girlfriend -- preceded his interest in fringe political ideologies. During his junior year, he was arrested and charged with possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia and later went "through a tagging phase," according to a friend.

These details, and many others like them (including his obsession with "conscience dreaming") suggest an increasingly troubled young man who ultimately latched onto whatever conspiracy theories he could find to make sense of the world around him. Such behavior again seems to echo the experience of the Columbine killers, who latched onto their own brand of largely apolitical nihilism.

But in some ways, suggesting that the shooting was either a political act or an expression of mental illness may be the wrong way to frame the question. "Paranoid people, people with mental illness, try to find very simple, identifiable scapegoats," Brian Levin, an expert on political extremism at California State University, told the liberal American Prospect magazine. "When you have political rhetoric that is on a parallel track, that also is increasingly using bizarre conspiratorial theories, it's just kindling for someone who is mentally ill."

Indeed, in the last two years, we've seen several violent acts attributed to people who were mentally unstable, but apparently influenced by extremist political rhetoric.

(Top photo of Loughner at the Tucson Festival of Books in March: Arizona Daily Star/Mamta Popat, via AP)