The motivations of a killer

They were actually expecting Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged gunman in the shooting Saturday morning that killed six people (though Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) may well survive), to be coherent. Juan Cole, who is usually a bit more level-headed, for instance, opened his column writing that Loughner “was clearly mentally unstable,”[1] as if that should be a surprise.

As I noted yesterday, “a lot of people think [the shooting] was politically-motivated.”[2] Yet for many that seems to have implied that Loughner would be rational. And indeed it turns out he is not. Jeff Kaye, a psychologist, writes that

his videos do display a garbled mixture of political concerns, and there is a great deal about conscience (“conscience dreams”), about not doing wrong, about the definition of “terrorist”, about “grammar” and “currency”, about “brainwashing” and “mind control”. At times, appears as if he’s grappling with something struggling inside himself. . . .

I would caution against implying any politics to someone who appears so disturbed, as his interpretation of political symbols and phrases are interpreted in a highly idiosyncratic and irrational way. However, if he were susceptible to violence, then the targets available by the given society, i.e., the rhetoric out there in the society, would have pointed him towards liberals, leftists, Muslims, or other minorities, and that kind of rhetoric has mainly been from the right-wing, as has been copiously commented upon.[3]

In an addendum, Kaye notes that an extract of Loughner’s statements in a video are “not the ramblings of a right-wing crackpot, which some have claimed Loughner to be, but gibberish.”[4]

I was trying to be cautious yesterday in any assessment of Loughner’s motivations. And I certainly don’t fully agree with Cole here:

And among the concerns that came to dominate him as he moved to the Right was the illegitimacy of the “Second Constitution” (the 14th Amendment, which bestows citizenship on all those born in the US, a provision right-wingers in Arizona are trying to overturn at the state level). Loughner also thought that Federal funding for his own community college was unconstitutional, and he was thrown out for becoming violent over the issue. He obviously shared with the Arizona Right a fascination with firearms, and it is telling that a disturbed young man who had had brushes with the law was able to come by an automatic pistol. He is said to have used marijuana, which would be consistent with a form of anti-government, right-wing Libertarianism.[5]

Earth to Cole: most people who use marijuana are pretty mellow folks. You would have done better to have discounted that bit of evidence just as you did his reading list.

And Cole does not persuade me when he claims that “Loughner was acting politically even if he is not all there.”[6] To say so is meaningless—we could as easily attribute political action to the weather at the event. But Loughner apparently knew whom he was shooting. According to Cole, “He is said to have called out the names of his victims, such as Roll and Gifford, as he fired.”[7] And Cole’s comment that, “As usual, when white people do these things, the mass media doesn’t call it terrorism”[8] is certainly correct but best reserved for a more expansive treatment of the whole use of the term terrorism (where I think Cole and I would find a lot of common ground).

Cole’s larger point, however is that

Those right-wing bloggers who want to dismiss Loughner as merely disturbed are being hypocritical, since they won’t similarly dismiss obviously unstable Muslims who, like the so-called “Patriots” of the McVeigh stripe, sometimes turn violent. . . .

But where members of Congress encourage extreme rhetoric, and where Rupert Murdoch’s stable of demagogues use code to whip up racial hatred and violence, those [First Amendment] rights can be withdrawn by vigilante and mob violence. Not the letter of the Constitution can protect us, but only its spirit, and then only when implemented in our daily lives.[9]

I wasn’t completely clear yesterday when I used a metaphor of climate change—which produces a greater number of extreme weather events—to suggest that a political climate change was producing a greater number of extreme political events. What political climate change was I talking about? (If I were doing this for a living, I might have an editor to throw stuff like this back in my face.)

Certainly there has, particularly since an enhanced evangelical Protestant influence in politics that beginning in the late 1970s combined with a corporate backlash that created the powerful business lobby that now effectively owns Washington, D.C.,[10] been a rise in right wing fanaticism, a fanaticism, however, that is far from unprecedented.[11] As I look at history, I would in fact trace this at least to the end of the Civil War, when we forced people who believed in the righteousness of slavery to submit; when we amended the constitution to 1) abolish slavery, 2) guarantee equal protection of the law to all persons (men anyway—the personhood of women is apparently still in doubt), and 3) grant universal male citizen suffrage (intentionally including blacks); when a second great wave of immigration brought more darker-skinned non-native speakers of English from southeast Europe to the United States; when increased mobility in the Industrial Revolution meant that young men left young women in the lurch a lot more often; when industrialization meant an increased discrepancy in economic power between rich and poor; when middle- and upper-class white women started exercising greater control over their own fertility, leading nativists to shriek that whites would be outnumbered (and lose political hegemony); and when the evangelical movement as we understand it today got its start.

I would say in fact that the Civil War continues to reverberate in the social and political polarization that has become prominent beginning in the late 1970s but is arguably a continuation of a story that includes the counterculture and Civil Rights movements, lynchings, and the death penalty.

I’m not as sanguine as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson about the balance they say the authors of the U.S. Constitution sought between economic power and political democracy.[12] I’ve been thinking again about Federalist No. 10:

The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property, is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet, there is perhaps no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party, to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they over-burden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets. . . .

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government on the other hand enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest, both the public good and the rights of other citizens. . . .[13]

Here we see that James Madison, who wrote Federalist No. 10, fears that democracy would deprive the rich of their property. It is his most specific example in his argument for a republican form of government:

The effect of the first difference [between a Democracy and a Republic are, first, the delegation of the Government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest] is, on one hand to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.[14]

Madison doesn’t just think a republican system is more practical than a democracy; he trusts those who are elected. And who are such people? On the one hand, he admits that “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”[15] and he expects that by finding an appropriate ratio of representation to population “it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried”[16]—acknowledging that elections are far from perfect. This is about an elite class of men (women were chattel at this point in history) who can appeal to a wide electorate and, Madison thinks, will be able to set aside their own interests to govern according to Madison’s concept of “wisdom.” In other words, they are so filthy stinking rich that they really don’t care about the effects of legislation on their own lives. They will “wisely” govern those Madison seemingly sees as a mob who in a democracy might tax away the property of the rich.

Howard Zinn’s approach to Federalist No. 10 turns on Madison’s main argument that a republic can better manage factions:

So the real problem, according to Madison, was a majority faction, and here the solution was offered by the Constitution, to have “an extensive republic,” that is, a large nation ranging over thirteen states, for then “it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. . . . The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”

Madison’s argument can be seen as a sensible argument for having a government which can maintain peace and avoid continuous disorder. But is it the aim of government simply to maintain order, as a referee, between two equally matched fighters? Or is it that government has some special interest in maintaining a certain kind of order, a certain distribution of power and wealth, a distribution in which government officials are not neutral referees but participants? In that case, the disorder they might worry about is the disorder of popular rebellion against those monopolizing the society’s wealth. This interpretation makes sense when one looks at the economic interests, the social backgrounds, of the makers of the Constitution.[17]

Zinn’s history is largely about the tension between the working class and the wealthy that persists in U.S. history and periodically erupts, compelling the wealthy to concede just enough to just enough people to avoid a full-blown revolution. And here Zinn sees Madison as reposing trust in his own well-to-do class. “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause,”[18] Madison writes, but he presumes it is the poor who have a “cause” (to deprive the rich of their property) and not the rich. Indeed Chomsky writes,

After the American revolution, rebellious and independent farmers had to be taught by force that the ideals expressed in the pamphlets of 1776 were not to be taken seriously. The common people were not to be represented by countrymen like themselves, that know the people’s sores, but by gentry, merchants, lawyers, and others who hold or serve private power. Jefferson and Madison believed that power should be in the hands of the “natural aristocracy,” Edmund Morgan comments, “men like themselves” who would defend property rights against Hamilton’s “paper aristocracy” and from the poor; they “regarded slaves, paupers, and destitute laborers as an ever-present danger to liberty as well as property.” The reigning doctrine, expressed by the Founding Fathers, is that “the people who own the country ought to govern it” (John Jay). The rise of corporations in the 19th century, and the legal structures devised to grant them dominance over private and public life, established the victory of the Federalist opponents of popular democracy in a new and powerful form.[19]

Even if one assigns more charitable motives to the Founding Fathers than I, Madison’s reliance on the vastness of the country to limit what Madison would see as factional mischief would surely be undermined in a globalized world or even in a country where the Taft-Hartley Act allows businesses “to shift their operations to right-to-work states, where unions were barred from making union membership a condition of employment in a firm or industry,”[20] and in which as Hacker and Pierson note, capital is far more mobile than labor. And the determination to protect a particular socioeconomic hierarchy by entrenching it in political power inevitably weights the scales in favor of the rich, who in the late 1970s organized and invested vast amounts of money in lobbying organizations that now effectively rule, and who certainly by the time of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 had allied themselves with evangelical Protestants.[21]

It is this increasing power of the rich—despite occasional setbacks—that I mean when I refer to political climate change. I’ll quote here from what I wrote in EarthWiki[22]:

As Charles Reich describes it,

Every step the New Deal took encountered massive, bitter opposition of Consciousness I [individualist, laissez-faire] people. They found their world changing beyond recognition and instead of blaming the primary forces behind that change, they blamed the efforts at solving the problems. They totally lacked the sophistication necessary to see that a measure such as the Wagner Act might be redressing an existing oppression rather than creating oppression. The businessmen who were the most vocal in their opposition had a pathological hatred of the New Deal, a hatred so intense and person as to defy analysis. Why this hatred, when the New Deal, in retrospect, seems to have saved the capitalist system? Perhaps because the New Deal intruded irrevocably upon their make-believe problem-free world in which the pursuit of business gain and self-interest was imagined to be automatically beneficial to all of mankind, requiring of them no additional responsibility whatever. In any event, there was a large and politically powerful number of Americans who never accepted the New Deal even when it benefited them, and used their power whenever they could to cut it back.[23]

Where in the New Deal, there was the beginning of a recognition of social responsibility even among elites, Gore Vidal has said “the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.”[24] Noam Chomsky writes that “there is essentially one political party, the business party, with two factions. Shifting coalitions of investors account for a large part of political history.”[25] And Chris Hedges writes,

The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve. During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal. During the turmoil of the 1960s, it provided legitimate channels within the system to express the discontent of African-Americans and the anti-war movement. But the liberal class, in our age of neo-feudalism, is now powerless. It offers nothing but empty rhetoric. It refuses to concede that power has been wrested so efficiently from the hands of citizens by corporations that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty are irrelevant. It does not act to mitigate the suffering of tens of millions of Americans who now make up a growing and desperate permanent underclass. And the disparity between the rhetoric of liberal values and the rapacious system of inverted totalitarianism the liberal class serves makes liberal elites, including Barack Obama, a legitimate source of public ridicule. The liberal class, whether in universities, the press or the Democratic Party, insists on clinging to its privileges and comforts even if this forces it to serve as an apologist for the expanding cruelty and exploitation carried out by the corporate state.[26]

This political climate change does not happen overnight. As with meteorological climate change, it is a gradual, continuing process, marked by an increasing frequency of extreme events, like Hurricane Katrina, like the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

Experts said of Katrina that it was impossible to assign climate change as the cause, but that warmer sea temperatures make such storms increasingly probable. Likewise with the Giffords shooting, we probably cannot know that that an extreme socioeconomic disparity or its political implications are the cause.

But we can wonder if a country that hadn’t so deeply cut services to its own population might have intervened and gotten Jared Loughner the help he apparently so desperately needs.

  1. [1] Juan Cole, “White Terrorism,” Informed Comment, January 9, 2011,…
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Political Climate Change and Extreme Political Events,”, January 8, 2011,
  3. [3]Jeff Kaye, “Jared Loughner’s Possible Mental Illness,” Firedoglake, January 8, 2011,…
  4. [4]Kaye, “Jared Loughner’s Possible Mental Illness.”
  5. [5]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  6. [6]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  7. [7]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  8. [8]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  9. [9]Cole, “White Terrorism.”
  10. [10] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
  11. [11]goinsouth, “Right Wing Violence Is An American Tradition,” Daily Kos, March 21, 2010,
  12. [12]Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics.
  13. [13]James Madison, “The Federalist No. 10,” in Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, Garry Wills, ed. (New York: Bantam, 2003), pp. 53, 54.
  14. [14]Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 55.
  15. [15]Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 54.
  16. [16] Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 56.
  17. [17]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003), p. 97).
  18. [18]Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” p. 53.
  19. [19]Noam Chomsky, “Force and Opinion,” Z Magazine, July-August 1991. Retrieved from–.htm
  20. [20]Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, p. 128.
  21. [21] Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics.
  22. [22]EarthWiki, “United States – Internal Relationships with Humans – Polarization,”…
  23. [23]Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970), pp. 56-57.
  24. [24]Gore Vidal, interview by David Barsamian, “Gore Vidal Interview,” Progressive, August 2006,
  25. [25]Noam Chomsky, “Containing the Threat of Democracy,” in Barry Pateman (Ed.), Chomsky on Anarchism, Barry Pateman, ed., (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2005), p. 157.
  26. [26]Chris Hedges, “The World Liberal Opportunists Made,” Truthdig], October 25, 2010. Retrieved from… Archived at

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