Murder, politics and mental illness

Gabrielle Giffords

One day in 1993, when I was managing editor of the Boston Phoenix, I received a letter from a man named David Taber, who claimed that the CIA and his father had conspired to implant a computer chip in his brain so they could monitor his thoughts. Such letters are not as unusual as you might suppose; what made this one stand out was that it was well-written enough that it took me a couple of pages to realize the writer was mentally ill.

Not long after that, Taber showed up at the Phoenix, looking for me, in order to discuss when we might publish his letter. I couldn’t be found, and didn’t know about his visit until after a colleague had talked him into leaving.

And then, within a few weeks, Taber walked into an elementary school in the Southeastern Massachusetts town of Acushnet, took hostages and murdered the school nurse.* Unfortunately, I had discarded his letter.

It’s because of that experience — and, frankly, because of common sense — that I’m put off by those who are trying to politicize yesterday’s carnage in Arizona, which included the attempted murder of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of federal judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl, Christina Green.

The suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, appears to be very mentally ill. If you haven’t seen this video yet, take a look. I was especially struck by this Loughner statement: “I’m able to control every belief and religion by being the mind controller!” That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Now, by no means do I want to let anyone off the hook. I was appalled to learn that Giffords’ district was among those targeted on Sarah Palin’s truly demented gunsight map. I hope yesterday will bring the whole Palin phenomenon to a long-overdue end. And I scarcely know where to begin with this piece of incendiary garbage.

As Tucson Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said, careless rhetoric can have consequences. But that rhetoric did not create Jared Loughner. If he hadn’t gone after Congresswoman Giffords, he might have gunned down a school nurse instead.

*After posting this earlier today, I searched the Boston Globe’s archives and found a story published on April 17, 1993, that reported the details of Taber’s rampage in Acushnet. I’ve updated this post to include what I learned in that article.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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27 thoughts on “Murder, politics and mental illness

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Media Nation » Murder, politics and mental illness -- Topsy.com

  2. Aaron Read

    As Tucson Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said, careless rhetoric can have consequences. But that rhetoric did not create Jared Loughner. If he hadn’t gone after Congresswoman Giffords, he might have gunned down a school librarian instead.

    Bear in mind that (until we’re able to cure all mental illnesses) the Loughner’s of the world are always out there.

    The rhetoric doesn’t have to be.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Paul: The guy who talked him into leaving was a copy editor who was also an ordained minister. I’m sure he had the touch. If I had tried talking with him, I probably would have poured gas on the fire, with tragic results.

  3. Richard Fouchaux

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    Respectfully, I find this very, very weak. No one claims rhetoric “creates” wingnuts, quite the opposite. Is it any less a concern for us, the so-called sane ones, if it merely attracts, emboldens, empowers, encourages, enrages and enables them? If we are a humane society surely we can come up with a better response to mental illness than “tsk tsk, it couldn’t be helped, glad it wasn’t me.” I hear very little else here, and frankly it’s rather disappointing.

  4. Jeffrey Goldings

    Thank you, Dan, for sharing your thoughtful and chilling personal encounter with a reader and correspondent suffering from a serious mental illness. I believe the political rhetortic since the height of the Iraq war and certainly since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 has approached the overheated, dangerous levels we experienced in the run-up to the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. I refer readers to the excellent healing speech President Clinton gave in April 1995 in an effort to promote repsonsibility, respect, and healing in our public discourse. I have included the link to President Clinton’s speech, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/wjcoklahomabombingspeech.htm.
    I hope our political leaders and media members will review it and consider applying some of the lessons of Oklahoma City to our current rabidly hostile and divisive political environment.

  5. MJ Coughlin

    @Dan I agree that careless rhetoric didn’t create this guy, but right wing opposition to even reasonable gun control laws enabled him to buy an automatic handgun on November 30(according to one article I read earlier today – I don’t have citation), after he had already established a troubled history. Minus the gun the Congresswoman might have only had to face down a heckler or a still lethal but less murderous knife attack. There will be political ramifications from this tragedy.

  6. Nick Tepe

    I agree that the rhetoric didn’t create Loughner, but that rhetoric pointed him in this particular direction. And there’s no way of knowing if he still would have killed someone if he hadn’t been pointed in this direction. I know, Reagan was shot by a madman who was convinced that if he shot the president Jodie Foster would pay attention to him, and a shooting like this could have been inspired by something equally insane. But it wasn’t. You can’t deny that the rhetoric around this past election had an influence on these events.

  7. Great post. Angry and incendiary rhetoric is a longstanding part of the American democratic tradition and only very rarely does it spill over into violence against public figures. The left is on the wrong side of this one. The real story here is gun control. How the hell could a mentally deranged young man legally buy a semi-automatic pistol?

  8. Mike Rice

    Palin’s gunsight map sickens me. In some respects this country appears to be rotting from within.

    Loughner seems to be deranged and I’m wondering what his parents have to say about his mental state. Surely they must have picked up on his obvious unstableness.

  9. From what I’ve read it seems as though the shooter’s problems predate Sarah Palin and the tea party. (For example, on Twitter yesterday a woman who knew him talked about a change in his personality in 2006-2007.)

    While it’s entirely possible political rhetoric played a role in stoking whatever feelings of paranoia and/or anger he had, he clearly was a disturbed individual for some time.

    Which leads me to wonder, did anyone try to intercede? He lived at home and when he was asked to leave community college, administrators told his parents they should take him for a psychiatric evaluation. Did they? Did they notice anything in their son’s behavior that was worrisome? In the latest New York Times story it says that he was involved in five instances of classroom or library disruptions that involved the campus police. Five! How was that not a signal to anyone who knew him?

    And I agree with Simon and MJ. The larger issue is, how can someone who’s mentally ill purchase a gun? While it’s true that most mentally ill people are not violent, it’s also true that most drunks don’t get in a car and kill someone. But we still don’t think it’s a good idea to give them the keys and let them drive.

  10. Stephen Stein

    @Mike B – you forgot the smilie, but I assume that was a
    joke. @Dan – great article. But though it should give the “all
    terrorists are Muslim” crowd pause, I bet it won’t.

  11. Donna Morris

    The issue of parental or familial responsibility for family members who are mentally ill has concerned me for many years. I recall attending one of several government-sponsored public health forums set up almost twenty years ago to solicit citizen input on changing then-existing mental health law and policy.

    At that meeting an elderly, frail couple sat across the cavernous, almost empty auditorium. Eventually, the elderly gentleman rose and addressed the panel. “We have an adult son with paranoid schizophrenia, he said, and we plead with you to change the law so that when he goes off his meds, the police will come and take him to hospital before he hurts us. They will not do so now until he becomes violent, and we’re going to have a tragedy. He has struck and hurt us both during past incidents” Their tale was heartbreaking, their request reasonable, and yet it conflicted, then and now, with the tension between civil liberties, mental illness and the law.

    Nothing much was ever changed as a result of those hearings, and life has since been lost here due to similar scenarios.

    I, too, question why no mental health intervention occurred given the shooter’s disturbing history, but mental health intervention and treatment can be very difficult to accomplish if the subject resists and hasn’t yet broken the law.

  12. B.A. DuBois

    Nice posting, Dan, and a voice of reason… and having said that, it was disgusting to see the quick “gotta blame someone” political points that were being made from those both on the left *and* the right….

    And, alas, the language inciting violence is not just the purview of one party. For example, the Daily Kos a few days ago ran a posting about Congresswoman Giffords from a disgruntled constituent. The cheerful headline? “My CongressWOMAN voted against Nancy Pelosi! And is now DEAD to me.”

    Kos has conveniently removed that posting from his site. Here’s a screencap:

    http://twitpic.com/3o7s5c

    And a few years ago, the Democratic Leadership Council ran a map similar to Palin’s with bullseyes targeting key states, and using words such as “behind enemy lines.”

    http://www.dlc.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=253055&kaid=127&subid=171

    And in Arizona, when Democrat Harry Mitchell was running against Republican J.D. Hayworth, he put a rifle crosshair on Hayworth’s head in a TV ad!

    So can we all agree that violently-tinged rhetoric doesn’t belong on either side of the political spectrum?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @B.A.: (1) Do you really want to cite a commenter to DailyKos as evidence of anything? I’ll assume you know what “dead to me” means, but perhaps you don’t. (2) Not classy, though targets are not gunsights. You do know that the Palin folks changed those gunsights to red (!) whenever one of the Democrats went down, right? (3) Actually, Mitchell didn’t do that at all. Just watched the ad, and what you describe was clearly intended to emulate a surveillance camera. Thank you for calling me “a voice of reason,” but I’m not going down the false-equivalence road with you.

  13. L.K. Collins

    If you are against politicizing this heinous event, then
    why are you politicizing it? Wasn’t the famous, or infamous, Daisy
    Commercial political free speech? You aren’t suggesting that that
    political free speech be abridged?

  14. Heather Greene

    If you’re looking for a WAY LESS ambitious political attack ad, this one from RNC where then Speaker Pelosi is shown through the barrel of a gun then a gunshot is heard and the image of Nancy Pelosi goes red is pretty off. That isn’t even bring up the whole “Pussy Galore: Femme Fatale” aspect of that ad.

    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=8e2_1243295575

    Reading the comments on the Palin ad (that’s pretty consistantly been called out by critics since it went including Gabrielle Giffords) just made me think of it.

    More thoughts on the actual post by Dan Kennedy later on.

  15. Stephen Kyle

    You ought to consider this possibility:
    What if, in 1993, there was some particularly hateful political argument in the popular media which had targeted The Phoenix, perhaps due to an editorial. And what if that mentally ill man had read it, thereby feeling sufficiently encouraged to bring his gun to Brookline Avenue that day?
    What it comes down to is that, with such pressure and hate being promoted, it is exactly these people, the unfortunate ones who are ill and unstable, who are the first ones to crack. Through their illness, they become unwilling, unfortunate pawns who end up carrying out the secret wishes of those who know better than to get caught committing the acts themselves.

  16. Matt Kelly

    Look, the right-wingers out there– Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Sharron Angle and others– who pollute the airwaves and Internet with hateful speech help create the social context Jared Lee Loughner perceived. And since he was mentally ill, he perceived those social cues incorrectly and took them to mean violence is OK. The right-wingers were the ones using language like ‘relock and reload’ or ‘2nd Amendment solutions’ or lord knows what else. They injected the subtext of violent action into our national conversation about politics, and they should have known that some people can’t interpret that correctly and might do something rash.

    So I do squarely blame them for supporting a culture that would lead Loughner to think a shootout is OK. Maybe if they spent more time using language of tolerance, compromise and patience, Loughner would have shown up and pelted everyone with flowers.

  17. “The neurotic builds a castle and the psychotic lives in it.”

    The current media attitude of “presenting both sides” of the political debate without judgment has given us a world where several GOP candidates told their crowds they could seek “2nd amendment remedies” (gun violence) if they did not win elections.

    This is a right wing phenomenon; right wingers who contort themselves to find left wing equivalents end up citing marginal characters, not major party candidates. I’ve heard a cite of Rep. Grayson’s characterization of Christian fundamentalists as “American Taliban” as a left wing equivalent. Grayson did not urge his followers to shoot them, he just connected the dots between two different forms of fundamentalism.

    Shame on Palin and shame on the mass media for not calling these tactics out when they first appear. Targeting Giffords saved Loughner the trouble.

  18. Thanks for one of the most sobering, balanced and personal takes on the event.

    Mental illness aside, let’s look at the nature of the media we use to inform ourselves and form our political beliefs from as a nation.

    Incendiary speech is encouraged because it sells. Thoughtful, rational discussion is too often dismissed as boring. And frankly, I think this world can use a bit of boring. Unfortunately, no one wants a civics lesson, even if it is from the likes of CNN, NBC, or sometimes even, the NYT.

    We used to look down on countries not mature enough to settle matters with debates and elections, but as rhetoric (if you can even call it that anymore) heats up here in mainstream media, the art of argumentation suffers. We’re becoming a less mature nation as a result.

    It also hurts that we’re not teaching civics and debate in our public schools. We can fill our students with historical facts, dates, and whatever they need to pass the MCAS, but not the basic skills required to participate in the democratic process. It’s shameful.

  19. Heather Greene

    Just one day before, Gabrielle Giffords herself wrote about toning down the rhetoric
    http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/01/giffords-sent-email-on-eve-of-shooting-calling-for-toned-down-rhetoric.php

    One of the non-fatal victims who considered a hero of the event since she was wounded yet still was able to help stop the gunman and she is calling for toning down the political rhetoric
    http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/01/woman_who_grabbed_gun_clip_extreme_right_added_to.php

    The mother of the 9-year-old girl who died that day hoped the nation would tone down the political rhetoric

    The head law enforcement office in Pima Co., Ariz. made pleas for toning down the national political rhetoric
    http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/01/political_spin_conservatives_pile_on_pima_county_s.php

    Gabrielle Giffords’ brother-in-law called for reason in national rhetoric
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/10/AR2011011003134.html

    Roger Ailes, yes that Roger Ailes, called for toning down the political rhetoric
    http://tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/01/fox-news-prez-roger-ailes-i-told-our-guys-to-tone-it-down.php?ref=fpb

    So I think it’s worth asking why is the pundit class from Rush Limbaugh to Ana Marie Cox opposing toning down the national political rhetoric?

  20. Heather Greene

    I guess I put up that list because these are people forget that this view of toning down the hyper-violent political speech isn’t just partisan lefties, but real people like those directly involved in these events.

  21. Pingback: Thoughts on Jared Loughner, Political Rhetoric, and the State of Mental Health Care | Tenselblog

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