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Joel Whitney: How Crazy Was Loughner?

January 27, 2011

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By **Joel Whitney**

joel_whitney.jpgA Monday blog by Guernica’s Rebecca Bates argues that Jared Loughner’s main issue with Congresswoman Giffords was not necessarily gender. Rebecca has me convinced that Ms. magazine’s attempts, on their blog, to make the violence about gender is a stretch. But I’m not totally convinced that the media’s, even Obama’s attempts to be nonpartisan by calling Loughner crazy should end discussion. In fact, to do so would be totally Bush-like.

In a post titled “The Blog That Cried Misogyny,” Rebecca writes: “If you watch the videos Loughner made, you’ll note that he himself has no idea if ‘words mean anything,’ as he is frequently unable to put together a cohesive thought. Nothing inherently sexist here.”

Even as she claims that gender did play a role, Caroline Heldman, author of the Ms. blog, is herself unable to make a direct accusation: “So it is not unreasonable to assume that Loughner targeted Giffords because she is a woman in a position of power.” The cautious double negative is the tell. (Is Heldman a lawyer?) And I think Rebecca wins that dispute.

A Bilingual Wit

Worse still, Heldman also interprets a key exchange between Giffords and Loughner in a way that completely robs Giffords of her incredible wit. In their much-cited 2007 meeting Loughner asked Giffords whether words mean anything anymore. In Heldman’s retelling “Giffords, assuming Loughner was referring to bilingual issues, responded with a few phrases in Spanish.” Heldman links to a Wall Street Journal story that makes no such connection with bilingual issues.

In my reading, Giffords showed Loughner that there was a difference between a language he speaks and another he doesn’t. She forced him to see the difference between words you can’t agree with (or whose meaning changes depending on your nihilist philosophy, or the politics changing) versus words that are literally intelligible to others, but not to you. That is, words do have meaning. I think the choice to answer in Spanish, in either reading of the incident, was incredibly witty, but more so if we don’t assume Giffords misunderstood.

The point is, I don’t think Loughner’s question was totally unintelligible to Giffords, nor do I think his reaction is totally unintelligible to us. In Ms.’s world, Loughner was humiliated by a woman; gender is the issue. In Rebecca’s, mental health is the issue—a pre-existing condition, as it were. In mine, you can see in this exchange an example, possibly one of several, where a frail, possibly disturbed ego, a fragile—but still human—mind, was humiliated. She outsmarted him (“stupid and unintelligent” being his defensive projection back on her exactly what he felt about himself after their interaction). Sadly, it is here (desire for revenge, fantasies of absolute power) where the story links up with American power abroad, and the much-cited political rhetoric here at home.

September 11, why do they hate us?

When I read Rebecca’s very smart, funny blog it occurs to me that the Bush administration narrative about September 11 has returned. Saying that the motives of crazies can’t be known shielded American foreign policy from the idea of blowback, as Chalmers Johnson named the unintended consequences of our foreign policy. It also shielded Bush specifically from the infamous August 6 memo that warned him that Al Qaeda was planning an attack of this sort. And it shielded senior U.S. officials from their record of extensive dealings with both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, both of whom the U.S. armed.

In this case, President Obama struck the right notes at the memorial service of those who died as a result of Loughner’s violent crimes. Funerals are not the place for politics. But let’s definitely keep talking about American violence in all its forms, about legal causes and lobbies (i.e., easy gun purchasing and the NRA), right-wing extremism, irresponsible upstartism like that of Sarah Palin, aided by John McCain—and the ease with which irresponsible talk can lead to inexorable publicity streams and, somehow, book sales—in some perverse form of post-modern populism. And let’s stay conscious, too, of what we can and cannot prove, causally.

I learned of Giffords being shot while on Twitter, where I warned my modest list of followers that jumping to conclusions about Loughner’s motive might backfire—and I believe it did. But admitting we don’t yet have proof for one cause or another doesn’t mean we should stop looking for it. Nor should the label of “crazy” end discussion.

And it seems the Loughner-was-crazy story has some factual holes in it already anyway. He apparently explored the consequences of an assassination. So I agree with Rebecca when she writes that “misogyny can’t be the answer to everything”; it has not been proven by the Ms. blogger, who strains to cite evidence for it. But I also think the whole He’s Crazy story has an ugly precedent and shields people who may be responsible for all sorts of terrible ideas.

Copyright 2011 Guernica Magazine

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Joel Whitney is an editor of Guernica. Read his interview with Deeyah on banned musicians here. Joel’s writing and commentary have appeared in World Policy Journal, The New Republic, The Village Voice, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Paris Review, The Nation, Agni, New York magazine—and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter.

To read blog entries others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

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