Archive for January 25th, 2011

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner – madman, terrorist, or both?

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011
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Jen Paton over at 3quarksdaily has a provocative post comparing two Time Magazine cover boys:  Timothy McVeigh in 1995 and this month’s Jared Loughner.  One, the nation decided, was a terrorist; the other a madman.

In their way, the Times makes a nod toward balance, setting up a binary opposition: when it comes to Loughner, they say, there are “those who see premeditation” and “those who suspect he is insane, and therefore a step removed from being responsible for his actions…” Are the insane unable to plan? Do only terrorists plan? Is he a terrorist, or is he mad? The word terrorist remains unspoken: apparently, it could never apply here, not now.

Paton challenges our “reluctance to view a troubled young white American with no religious ties as a terrorist. In 1995, this was not a distinction we made so easily.”

Like McVeigh, Loughner targeted a symbol of government power, and hurt innocent people. Like McVeigh, Loughner had a complicated relationship with the military and, like McVeigh, he apparently had a deep mistrust of the United States government. Jared Loughner, like Timothy McVeigh, “had reasons of his own,” which are and always will be inaccessible to the rest of us.

But we called McVeigh a terrorist. Why isn’t Loughner a terrorist? Has America redefined its criteria for who can be one?

This is not to say Loughner’s actions weren’t swept up into other people’s political frameworks. …  David Brooks argued that mainstream coverage overemphasized possible political motivations, with all the talk of Sarah Palin’s map and the “violent rhetoric of the Tea Party.” Brooks describes  “a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leads toward political explanations.” Brooks is right in his diagnosis, but I see the opposite symptom: the media may be psychologically ill informed, but that hasn’t stopped them from attempting to psychologize Loughner to the nth degree.

What about John Hinkley, who also had a political target? Or  Nidal Malik Hasan?

Terrorism expert Jeff Victorof notes that though there is a lack of consensus on what defines terrorism, “two common elements are usually found in contemporary definitions: (1) that terrorism involves aggression against non-combatants and (2) that the terrorist action in itself is not expected by its perpetrator to accomplish a political goal but instead to influence a target audience and change that audience’s behavior in a way that will serve the interests of the terrorist”  (Victoroff, 2005)

By this definition, Jared Loughner fits the ticket, though he may also be psychotic.  It’s akin to the people who say that we cannot call Loughner evil — he was insane.  Well, why not both?  Why do we presuppose two non-overlapping categories?  And how does the craving for celebrity mutilate any political designs, whether garbled or coherent — or become a psychological disease itself?  How is language used to shape our latent political ends?

But read Jen Paton’s post here — and the comments afterward, too.

Postscript: Over on my Facebook page, Agustín Maes wrote this:

“Interesting, and similar to what I was thinking about after the Tucson shooting. It annoyed me that so much attention was being given to Loughner’s supposed insanity. Loughner does indeed seem as though he may be psychologically ill, but …talking about his mental deficiencies seems more like an attempt to rationalize his evil actions more than anything else. McVeigh wasn’t nuts, neither was Ted Kaczynski. (Neither was Hitler.) But the Unabomber was consistently called ‘crazy’ because it helped people cope with his amorality.”

The last few weeks events, especially the kerfuffle about the term “blood libel,” made me think about Jean-Marie Apostolidès and his writings about Ted Kaczynski.  I’ve written about it here.

Postscript to postscript:  Whoops.  I meant here, “Unabomber’s writings raise uneasy ethical questions.”