On the night of January 7th, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner, twenty-two, checked into a Motel 6 in Tucson, Arizona. He then dropped off a roll of film containing pictures of himself in a red g-string, a gun to his bare ass. Loughner retrieved these photos that same night. This was the frenetic evening before he decided to instantiate himself as the angel of death. Returning to his house early the next morning, Loughner got into some kind of fight with his father. He ran from the house, and called a taxi at a gas station. At 9:54 AM the cab arrived at a local Safeway supermarket. Lougher needed change, so he and the driver entered the supermarket together to get it from a cashier. Ca-ching.
At approximately 10:10 AM, Loughner walked onto a curb outside the supermarket. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the local representative, was hosting a meet-and-greet event, "Congress On Your Corner". Taking out a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun with an extended magazine, Loughner walked up to Giffords and fired at her, point blank. A bullet entered her head over her left eyebrow. As Giffords slumped to the ground, Loughner continued to shoot: at women, children, anyone present. The event went from targeted assassination to its very antithesis in seconds. Reports indicate that when Loughner tried to insert a new magazine into his weapon, a woman wrested his gun from him, and two men subsequently tackled him. The shootings lasted no longer than ninety seconds. It was a sunny Saturday morning.
All told, six people died in the attack. A federal judge was killed; an elderly homemaker was killed; a nine-year old girl was killed. But Gabrielle Giffords survived. She was one of fourteen people injured in the shooting. Giffords was immediately rushed to the hospital, hovering near death. In the midst of emergency surgery, doctors removed a piece of her skull, and then induced her into a coma. She was lucky, relatively speaking. The bullet only entered one side of her brain.
An older married couple was also at the Safeway that day. They were former high-school sweethearts who had broken up many years ago, married other partners, and spent most of their adult lives apart. Both were widowed early, and so after eventually reconnecting with one another, they rekindled their old romance and wed in their early sixties. One lived through the shooting; the other didn't. Another man who was wounded at the Safeway had, decades earlier, run from the National Guard at Kent State.
But I admit it is not the thought of the actual shooting that I cannot shake, that I find myself replaying over in my head: it is what Loughner did just prior to it.
Over a year after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, we still do not comprehend its meaning. I am afraid our understanding will not improve with time. It is an event full of symmetries and asymmetries, disturbing trends and unexplainable lacunae, and would be easier to understand if it could be explained away, made neat and easy and rational. But sometimes events can't be. The Giffords shooting is confounding because it challenges the veneer of civilization, the stocking we slip on when we leave the house every morning. In fact, what is most notable about the shooting is its perspicuous lack of context today. If the event dizzies us, it is because it does not conform to any single narrative scheme, so we feel we must impose one onto it. The Gabrielle Giffords shooting, you see, wasn't even really about Gabrielle Giffords. It was about a malignancy; a heart of darkness that no society can cleanse through respiration; an uncanny truth about civilization and how its peripheries always haunt us.
What I want to show you is that neither the pressure of social institutions nor the whims of individual willpower can account for cases like Jared Loughner. These cases—these individuals—exist in an shadow-world of explanation, one in which structure or agency are appealed to in inverse proportion to how well one or the other actually explains anything that has occurred. This leads to incoherence, and we learn nothing. We look toward sociology or psychology when the question is one of theodicy. But there is something so dissatisfying about this truth that we often flee to one pole or the other, and in the process we seek shelter in communal myths of greatness and security, or fantasies about "lone madmen," today's lepers, uncaused and despised. We consider these individuals to be utterly alone, and this is how we want to see them, because then we feel that we are safe from their infection, that evil may exist but we are always its object and never its vector. In the process, we search for these individuals' opposites. We create their opposites. The devil cannot work undisturbed.
We have to accept that violence like that unleashed by Jared Loughner cannot be prevented or perhaps even understood. But it doesn't mean we have to become inured to it. Evil can be faced without retreating into collective myth making. Its scope and frequency can be admitted without shame. In fact, it is the continuous self-deception about the complex and unnerving nature of evil—the fact that it is not reducible to matters of personal choice, social practices, or public policy—that is the true measure of our dysfunction. By this measure, we are troubled indeed.
Take the initial reaction to the shooting. It was frenzied and speculative, at an almost pornographic level of saturation and exposure. In other words, it was made for the twenty-four hour cable news cycle, a perfect journalistic storm. This short-lived and intense Media Event was followed, predictably, by members of our political class making predictably divergent arguments about where blame lay. But this process was immediately offset or counterbalanced by a "nonpolitical" process of collective reaffirmation, a desire to cleanse ourselves through a return to a prenatal political condition. Faced with an individual act of evil, solace is sought through the social body. We grieve together. So it is unsurprising that a massive memorial service was held in Tucson four days after the shooting. It was called "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America." There was a Native American blessing. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke. Then it was President Obama's turn. He began with an obligatory biblical quote, but quickly pivoted to describing the civic scene, moments before it became a crime scene.
"On Saturday morning," he intoned, "Gabby, her staff and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders—representatives of the people answering questions to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns back to our nation's capital. And that quintessentially American scene, that was the scene that was shattered by a gunman's bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday—they, too, represented what is best in us, what is best in America." Perhaps this is an apt description of something "quintessentially American" but on a variety of planes, some conscious, others less so. The speech emphasizes civic awareness and local democracy, a dimension of American public life that is equal parts mythic and mundane. It activates images embedded into our national psyche: discordant voices forming a harmonious whole, flexibility and responsiveness and ownership over our own affairs, images of Norman Rockwell. It says: After the Fall, we will always have the Safeway parking lot, "Congress On Your Corner," a prelapsarian state of perfect local democracy, reason and speech coming together, united. No matter how many times such a Fall occurs.
And that may be for the good. In a country as vast and occasionally disturbed as ours, these kinds of narrative embellishments serve a useful social purpose, to a point. They situate us in a shared language at the precise moment when signification seems impossible. They make us remember who we are, or who we think we are. But no matter how much we would like to plot a straight line between the enumerating of the Bill of Rights and a sunny January morning in Tucson in 2011, events like the Loughner shooting don't occur in a social or historical vacuum. Neither do congressional meet-and-greets. In the aftermath of the shooting many made vague protests about the current atmosphere of political incivility, as if political discourse had until recently been calm and congenial, all handshakes and back-pats. The Washington Post used a formulation that was repeated endlessly: "The mass shooting Saturday morning that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed a federal judge raised serious concerns that the nation's heated political discourse had taken a dangerous turn." It was as if a senator had not once been violently beaten within the Senate Chamber itself by a rival congressman over slavery; or if, during the presidential election of 1800, John Adams had never claimed that Thomas Jefferson was the son of a mulatto and a "half-breed Indian squaw," or Jefferson never characterized Adams as "hermaphroditical," among many other things. So it was unsettling, but not at all shocking, how speculation about the role our current political climate played in the shooting could be disconnected from the collective memory of our inherited political life, and more importantly, the events that puncture it. Because this was not the first time a man—a boy, really—chose to poison his community's well, nor will it be the last.
There is always a chasm between political and social values and lived reality, between the ideal and the real. Foundation myths, fables about national greatness, the full compliment of tools that help assemble the nation-state: these things are equally false everywhere. But there may be something uniquely discordant about what the United States sees when it stares at itself in the mirror. We are less beautiful than we think, a Dorian Gray in reverse. Undoing this spell will require coming to terms with the level of violence that characterizes American life, acknowledging that it has seeped through us and become part of who we are. It is true that the Loughner shooting, because it seemed so irrational, so spontaneous and yet so calculated, violated humdrum principles of American life (for who couldn't imagine shaking their Congresswoman's hand, or going grocery shopping on a sunny Saturday morning?) and crossed a certain threshold for violence that captivated and horrified us. We struggled to understand how an individual could value human life so little. But the violence itself was not unique: it merely appears on the upper register in the range of brutality, one in which we are unable to hear the lower, more common notes, or have become deaf to them. In this case, we heard. And what we found most piercing was the death of Christina Taylor-Green.
The newspapers could not help themselves. Christina Taylor-Green, who was nine years old at the time of her death on January 8th, 2011, was born on September 11th, 2001. She was one of fifty American babies born that day featured in the book Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11. Fifty babies, fifty states, January 8th, September 11th: disintegration and conception, insemination and elimination. Unlike Jared Loughner, she is crystalline to us. A ready-made narrative arc, she possesses perfect symmetry. With the possible exception of John Roll, the federal judge also killed in the shooting, she is the most-cited fatality. (The two are often mentioned in tandem.) This is partly because she was Loughner's youngest victim, and because she was beautiful, and precocious. Her short life was symbolic and overdetermined, and in this she is Jared Loughner's antithesis, or at least portrayed as it.
If Loughner represents what is equivocal about our national life—and the violence, alienation, and paranoia that threatens to consume it—then Christina Taylor-Green embodies the redemptive impulse, the possibility of perfectibility. At nine, she was probably too young to understand her own symbolism. That, in addition to being born on September 11th, she was elected to student council just before her death. That she was an "A" student. That she was an athlete, a swimmer, a dancer. The fact that she existed at all seems miraculous, the jewel in the lotus, rising from the swamp. Which then sucked her back in.
Why did we need Christina Taylor-Green, the "angelic victim"? There is tragedy built into the idea of a young girl's death, something elemental about it. Her life had not really begun yet, but in the aftermath of the shooting there was a special kind of intensity of meaning imposed on it, as if the mundane pastimes of a nine-year-old were endowed with the supernatural. Mythic and mundane: she was no different than any of us (we were all children once, traces of memory lodged into our consciousness), but she was different than all of us: unique, irreplaceable. This reflects the paradox of the modern world, where the triumph of the individual is nested alongside the concept of an abstract humanity. Her life was a testament to individuality, stripped bare of the lies and evasions of adulthood, and therefore purer seeming. But her death, horrific and premature, was a knife-wound to this idea of humanity and humankind. It was a deep cut, but not a fatal one.
Imbuing Christina Taylor-Green's death with so much meaning allows her to live on, perpetually. This was a sacrificial slaughter. We did not ask for it and few would have assented to its occurrence, but once she died her symbolic life began almost immediately, as if it were the product of some remote natural law. We need her. She is tangible, the image of a person we all know. She would likely have made a good neighbor, co-worker, friend, or wife. Maybe not: it doesn't matter anyhow, as long as we keep saying as much. We can mourn the idea of Christina Taylor-Green, as she is more real to us—even though she no longer exists—than Jared Loughner, who is a living apparition, the opposite of a mirage.
The question is who Jared Loughner in fact was. He was not always a killer. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment when he became one. He was a shy teenager whose major passion was playing jazz saxophone. He had a girlfriend, at least briefly. He experimented with his style of dress, trying to forge a new identity in high school, the place where history feels most oppressive, at exactly the point we try to transcend it. He smoked pot and then he didn't. His literary tastes were eclectic and reveal no overarching ideology. He listed The Old Man and the Sea, Siddharta, and The Republic among his favorites, but also Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, and We the Living. He loved Animal Farm, Brave New World, and Farenheit 451, stories about dystopias. There is too much here to make sense of any of it. Mein Kampf is the only work mentioned that is almost universally associated with evil. Put that aside and Loughner sounds like your average suburban teenage searcher, the last person in the world who understands that there is an army of rhuemy-eyed boys and girls like him languishing in windowsills across the continent.
Loughner was picked on. His school records show he was once even harassed by a needle-wielding student. He likely suffered a variety of indignities. Cruelty in high school is widespread, and those who are the chosen prey of a few are often marked for further abuse. The stigma can be hard to shake. At home, Loughner seemed largely to swallow whatever sickness was present. By most accounts, his mother Amy was loving and supportive. His father Randy, however, was considered a gruff, unfriendly, distant man. Mr. Loughner would barely acknowledge his own neighbors. Kids were afraid to ask for balls that accidentally made their way into the Loughners' yard. After getting into a fight with Randy one night, Jared stole a bottle of his father's vodka, and drank so much of it that when he went to school the next morning, he was sent to the nearest hospital.
And then there is a gap. There was "inappropriate smiling." There was pacing in circles. The fixed ideas that grammar was being used to effect mind control on the mass level, that the U.S. government was illegitimate because its currency wasn't backed by gold or silver. Angry outbursts about six really being eight, leading to his suspension from Pima Community College. Where is the line, the point, the threshold that marks his final enclosure within his own mind? It doesn't exist. Surely, Jared Loughner is ill. Psychologists have diagnosed him as schizophrenic and unfit to stand trial. But that is immediately, and painfully, obvious, and so this diagnosis reveals little. The mere fact that he was mentally ill and capable of violence does not explain how he came to realize this impulse, or why he became obsessed with Gabrielle Giffords.
Loughner was not a right-wing militiaman of some sort, although it is true that ideas he espoused, especially those related to hard currency and the illegitimacy of the American government, are common in some of the deeper recesses of the American right. Whether this motivated him to violence or merely fed into his paranoid and delusional mindset cannot be known. The same goes for the lamented state of American political discourse: the rhetorical excesses and violent imagery employed by many of our political celebrities—predominantly, almost exclusively, on the right—is undoubtedly corrosive. But it still feels disingenuous to make Loughner a monster of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck's creation.
Still, Jared Loughner is a product of his social and intellectual environment, just like the rest of us. He was touched by the world he lived in, and he was part of it. Portraying him as absolutely isolated does injustice to the person he was before illness shattered his mind. He acted on the world. He made choices. He had beliefs, and ideas to which he was exposed. Although his thoughts are disjointed and sometimes even nonsensical, they are steeped in fringe conspiracy theories. Although media coverage of the shootings underplayed this fact, Loughner's writing possesses a clear genealogy. For instance, Loughner believed that most American citizens had never read the U.S. Constitution, because if they did, they'd realize they "don't have to accept the federalist laws," which he considered treasonous. He was also emphatically opposed to the idea of floating currency. It is likely that Jared Loughner had been exposed to the "sovereign citizens" movement, a loosely organized right-wing conspiracy group that believes that the federal government is illegitimate and that it is at the discretion of the individual to decide which laws to obey.
From here, the beliefs of sovereign citizens do not become more lucid. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit civil rights organization, sovereign citizens claim that at some point—often posited to be either during the Civil War or in 1933, when the United States ended the gold standard—the American legal system (what sovereigns call "common law") was clandestinely superseded by "admiralty law," a type of private international law regulating international commerce. They believe that there is a massive judicial conspiracy in America, and judges ignore the many legal maneuvers of sovereign citizens because of a "treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces." Sovereign citizens associate admiralty law with enslavement, and believe that a return to "common law" would liberate them. They consider themselves monetary warriors fighting for their very lives: since the U.S. abandoned the gold standard, they claim that in order to maintain our credit "the government has pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans." They believe we are sold at birth.
Although it is hard to fathom, the SPLC estimates that there are roughly 100,000 sovereign citizens in the United States today, many of whom simply refuse to file federal income taxes. The actor Wesley Snipes (who is currently serving jail time for this very infraction) is probably the most famous sovereign citizen. Most are nonviolent. But some are not. In May of 2010, for instance, sovereign citizens Jerry and Joseph Kane murdered two police officers during a routine traffic stop in West Memphis, Arkansas.
All this is to say that Jared Loughner did not appear wholly out of the ether. We don't know the extent to which he ascribed to the theories espoused by the sovereign citizens movement, because he did not provide us with a treatise of his thoughts and ideas. Like some delirious pre-Socratic philosopher in the age of YouTube, all we have are fragments. Likewise, how much of this absurdity he absorbed before his schizophrenia took hold and how much of it merely appeared plausible because reality was receding from him cannot accurately be determined. But the fact remains that he was not alone in his beliefs. Quarantining Jared Loughner entirely from others—painting him as utterly intellectually alienated—allows this community and its fellow travelers to maintain a safe distance. It is not a distance they should be permitted. The idea that Loughner had no discernable beliefs was simply untrue. This notion gained traction at least in part because many of his ideas, especially those related to taxation and the role of the federal government, have champions in the American political mainstream. While most of these figures do not ascribe to the conspiracy espoused by the sovereign citizens, many share their disdain for what they perceive as federal overreach, and likewise adhere to a theory of constitutional originalism. From there one is a step closer to groups like the sovereign citizens, and another to even more peripheral figures like Loughner. But it is also true that merely fomenting the paranoid style in American politics, a style that has undergone a major revival of late (and could now even be considered mainstream), cannot explain its more obscure permutations. A straight line cannot be drawn from the beliefs of marginal groups like the sovereigns to an assassination attempt that became a slaughterhouse.
In the end, no explanation of the Giffords shooting will be sufficient; no cause considered definitive. We will never be satisfied with Jared Loughner, because he never gave us the satisfaction of a good, clean story. He is neither pure chaos nor pure structure, and any attempt to explain him away through either is intellectually dishonest, although it is a kind of cultivated dishonesty, one that is implicitly considered impolite to point out. This is because in our national conversation complexity is frowned upon. A simple lie is preferable to a complicated truth. And the truth in this case is that there is no single truth. Loughner was mentally ill, yes. He was conversant in fringe theories, absolutely. He was a loner and an outcast and a saxophone player and he read Plato and Marx and Hesse. Then he ended up a murderer. His life was lived out in a kind of liminal state and even the most consequential act of his life is damned to remain that way. If he is evil, it is not because he was essentially so. This is what terrifies us. This is why we run in the other direction.
Jared Loughner will never be anything but a blur. But the fact that we can't really understand him is not simply because his mind became untethered. He was probably always out of focus, just beyond capture. It is people like him who we find most puzzling. We see what is most ugly about ourselves in them, but they rarely teach us anything, because we don't let them. Perhaps they speak in code, one only comprehendible to the initiated. It is not easy to parse, for instance, why before the shooting Loughner took a photo of a handgun resting on an American History textbook, likely the same handgun he used in his suburban massacre. It is not easy to understand why he had two 9mm bullets tattooed on his right shoulder blade, the same kind of bullets that eventually entered Gabrielle Giffords' head, just over her left eyebrow. It is not easy to decipher his claim that he was a sleepwalker, but of a special sort, the kind that "turns off the alarm clock." Nor is it clear who the perpetual dreamers are now: Loughner himself, his victims, or those who after the massacre wrapped themselves up tightly in the fabric of received ideas.