Published January 10, 2011
Grammar Fixation Drove Shooting Suspect
“How do you know words mean anything?”
-- Question asked by Jared Loughner of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., at their first meeting at a 2007 “Congress on Your Corner” event. Loughner’s high-school friend Alex Montanaro told the Wall Street Journal that Loughner became “aggravated” because she ignored his question.
A clearer picture is developing of the suspect in the shooting rampage aimed at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and the image is of a deeply unstable young man who fixated on the congresswoman over a three-year period.
Federal authorities say Jared Loughner, 22, left taunting notes in a safe at the Tucson home he shared with his parents that read, “I planned ahead” and “my assassination” with his signature affixed. Loughner had also preserved a form letter from Giffords’ office – a thank you note for attending a 2007 event similar to the one at which police say Loughner killed six people and injured 14.
While many on the left are looking for a way to place Loughner on the political right in a bid to gain political advantage from the carnage, he seems to have been a true loner whose interests and fixations don’t meet any conventional political definition.
Though the New York Times incorrectly calls the publication of the white-separatist group American Renaissance “a conservative magazine,” the influences on Loughner’s tangled worldview don’t seem to come from anything identifiable as conservative.
Instead, drugs, mental illness and an obsession with grammar seem to be the main influences on what prosecutors say was a long-developed plot to kill Giffords.
Loughner’s rants, recorded online and by friends and classmates, have to do with some things that might be associated with the right, like his call for a return to the gold standard, some things that might be associated with the left, like his anger over the dissemination of Bibles by the U.S. Army, and some things that are not associated with anything, like his grammar obsession and a mathematical tic that seems to involve prime numbers.
As Giffords clings to life and doctors watch swelling in her brain for signs of a continued miraculous recovery, her family, friends and political supporters are learning the chilling news that Loughner met the congresswoman at a similar event in 2007 and told his few remaining friends that he was not satisfied with her response to his question, which he intended to spur a discussion about the government’s manipulation of grammar.
Loughner’s friends tell reporters that when the alleged killer met Giffords in 2007, he asked her “How do you know words mean anything?" and that the congresswoman responded with a few phrases in Spanish, presumably thinking he was referring to the bilingualism of the border district, and moved on.
Prosecutors say the incident helped cement a fixation on Giffords, whom Loughner’s associates say he called a “fake.”
Loughner, somehow fittingly, is represented by federal public defender Judy Clarke, who defended the eco-terrorist Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
Some Dems Move Against Political Speech
"You can't put bulls eyes or crosshairs on a United States congressman or a federal official.”
-- Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., to CNN referring to a Sarah Palin campaign Web page that would have been illegal under a bill he intends to propose outlawing “language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a member of Congress.”
Every lawmaker has a story about an encounter with a creepy or irrational constituent. The rambling phone calls, the angry confrontations at public events, the crazy letters.
In fact, even minor public figures know the unsettling feeling of attracting the interest of the mentally unwell. Power Play used to keep a file of the craziest letters it received from inmates, conspiracy theorists and kooks in general until they became so frequent as to be quotidian.
Lawmakers are united this week in sympathy for Giffords and her family but also in the realization that there are risks to life in the public eye.
These risks are not new (consider the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield by deranged attorney Charles Guiteau who believed God had commanded him to kill), but are increasingly common in a nation with so many mentally ill people.
Speaker John Boehner got high marks from both sides of the aisle for his calls for courage in the face of danger and his urging that Congress not be turned from its duties because of a lunatic’s act.
Even so, lawmakers and their families are deeply concerned that if such a random act could befall Giffords, it could happen to them too. And with some liberals describing the attack as an act of the political right, those fears include anxieties that a Republican might be targeted in a revenge plot.
The business of Congress will no doubt be slowed down, but calls for more protection and bigger budgets for the Capitol police will be swiftly heard. With 435 members, the House is intended to be the body in closest contact with the electorate. That proximity is very unappealing in light of the Giffords attack.
At the intersection between political opportunism and self-preservation, there is some momentum forming behind moves to limit political speech for fear that it will incite other unstable characters to violent acts.
The movement, led by Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., would extend the same kind of legal protections to all members of Congress that are provided to the president which allow the Secret Service to stop public expressions that seem to encourage violence against the chief executive.
Brady is talking specifically about a Web graphic from Sarah Palin’s political action committee that showed what seemed to be a marksman’s crosshairs on 22 congressional districts, including Giffords’. The Web page has been at the heart of liberal claims that conservatives encouraged the killing through overheated rhetoric.
There’s no sign that Loughner paid any attention to Sarah Palin or was involved in conventional politics. Plus, the use of military or violent metaphors in politics is hardly a new or partisan development. President Obama has talked about politics as a “gun fight” and called Republicans “hostage takers.” Democrats used similar targets on Web maps of Republican districts ripe for flipping. Everyone uses the term “battleground” states.
While most are content to call for general de-escalation of such violent metaphors, Brady and his supporters are keen to make them illegal.
How Brady believes political speech would be classified as dangerous and who would make that determination is unclear, but he will certainly find many Democrats receptive to his plan at this moment of great anxiety for all and political opportunism for some.
The New York Times reports that Obama is biding his time before he wades into the politics of the moment, feeling that it would be premature while Giffords’ life hangs by a thread.
But many Democrats are encouraging him to make plain the connection they see between their political critics and the act in hopes to discredit the right.
But Mike McCurry, who watched then-President Bill Clinton do just that after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, warns against exploiting the situation. And this case is even more fraught since bomber Timothy McVeigh had a coherent, if sick, worldview while Loughner just seems to be raving.
“The only way you gain political advantage is by doing absolutely nothing to take advantage — and not have a lot of people backgrounding about how clever your political strategy is.”
Gun Control Back on the Table
“My staff is working on looking at the different legislation fixes that we might be able to do and we might be able to introduce as early as (Monday).”
-- Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who was elected to Congress on an anti-gun platform after the 1993 murder of her husband in a shooting rampage on the Long Island Rail Road.
Denying the mentally ill access to firearms has bedeviled Americans for generations. Denying the insane the chance to buy guns has bipartisan support, but the means of doing so without preventing either normal Americans from making legal purchasing or making the ATF a new arbiter of the mental health of every citizen have eluded lawmakers.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., the leading advocate for gun control in Congress is working on a plan to beef up restrictions on insane people buying firearms.
And Republican staffers say there is bipartisan support for such legislation, but that the accord generally falls apart not on the goals, but for implementation.
While there are safeguards in place to prevent the insane from buying weapons, the problem is generally in getting people classified as insane.
Loughner was denied admission to the Army because of drug use. That’s not crazy. But Loughner was booted from his community college for aggressive behavior and troubling outbursts. That’s kind of crazy, but how should the school have reported him? Should all schools that expel people for such misbehavior be required to file a report with the federal government? Who would review the reports? Would treatment or detention follow?
While there will be strong initial momentum behind McCarthy’s push in the immediate aftermath of the incident, anything too ambitious will likely crumble under the pragmatic questions of the bipartisan pro-gun caucus in Congress.