My Last Word on Loughner

I see my colleague is still arguing that it was noble and good and even correct to leap into a discussion of violent rhetoric on the right after the shooting in Tucson.  I've been following his posts for several days now, and the argument seems to have several strands, so forgive me if I haven't gotten them all:

  1. No one is saying there's a direct causal relationship, which means that conservatives don't have any right to get miffed.  The implication seems to be that, suddenly and for no apparent reason, everyone wanted to talk about conservative bombast on the second amendment; coincidentally, a congresswoman was shot around that time.  
  2. Okay, so we're not saying there's a direct causal link, only that Jared Loughner could have picked up on this miasma of overheated talking points and then maybe gone out and shot Giffords because of this.  In the words of my colleague "My own view, as of the current evidence, is that Loughner was first a foremost a mentally ill person, but that some shards of far right ideology had entered his paranoid brain." Sure, it's possible--though this is in direct contradiction of the testimony of, AFAICT, everyone who actually knew him, all of whom say he was uninterested in politics and didn't listen to the talk radio or watch the television shows that were the main focus of our national tut-tuttery.  He could also have been sent over the edge by Andrew's impassioned writing on torture, which might have convinced him that Giffords was part of a monstrous state apparatus committing war crimes.  I mean, we don't have any evidence of this, but how do we know he didn't read Andrew and go over the edge?  For that matter, I think it's about time someone called out those dangerous blowhards at the Chicago Manual of Style, since it seems quite likely that their tracts on the necessity of strict rules for style and grammar fuelled Loughner's paranoid fantasies about government and language.  Those are, as I presume Andrew well knows, the only conspiracy theory that we have actually connected to Loughner's fixation on Giffords.
  3. Rush Limbaugh is a first class jerk, and Sarah Palin's a dangerous moron.
Okay, as it happens, I agree that Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are net detractors from American civil society.  However unfair it is, if Sarah Palin's inept response to the foofooraw takes her out of the running for president in 2012, I think the country will be better off--not least because it means that there might be an actually viable opposition candidate, rather than someone who gets the nomination precisely because she drives the rest of the country crazy.

But this is not really a stirring defense of the attempt to link Loughner's crimes with Limbaugh, Palin, or anyone else on the right--any more than it's okay to put people in jail for things they didn't do, just as long as the cops and prosecutors are really sure that they're bad people who deserve to be in jail.  The right has a legitimate grievance here: every time there's some potential act of terrorism, it seems that people feel perfectly free to assume that it must have been a right wing lunatic who committed it.  The same people who urged us not to rush to judgement after the Fort Hood shootings didn't see anything wrong with Bloomberg's speculation that the Times Square Bombing--a bombing actually committed by a Muslim terrorist wanna-be--was probably committed by a militia member. And now this.

I am in general impatient with the notion that "discrimination against (fat people, Christians, Catholics, gays, transvestites, etc.) is the last acceptable prejudice."  As you can see by the list, there still seem to be a lot of acceptable prejudices left.  But this rush to indict conservatives for every incident of mass violence where motives are unknown does have a bit of this flavor.  We have a laudable desire to avoid making incendiary remarks about Muslim terrorism, that might result in terrible violence against a mostly law-abiding community.  So why do we express this desire by rushing to blame any possible terrorist acts on a different, mostly law abiding community?  "Round up the usual suspects" is a law enforcement tactic that we should be skeptical of no matter who it is applied to.

Andrew's defense seems to be that there are a lot of right wing jerks out there, and that by combing Loughner's writing, he can find a few sentences here and there that sort of sound like things that might have been said by one of those right wing jerks.  But I'm pretty sure that if I combed Loughner's writing, I could find some sentences here and there that imply that Loughner read Andrew's writing, or gay rights literature, or Edmund Burke.  The guy was so disjointed that people on the UFO conspiracy theory message boards were saying, "Dude, this sounds craaaazy.  You need to get help for your delusions".  Meanwhile, many of the alleged connections to right wing writings are, as Jim Lindgren has pointed out, incredibly tenuous overreadings; moveover, there are at least as many connections to left wing ideas.  Which is to say, not many, in any recognizeable sense.  Trying to discern the hidden meanings and motives behind his writings means becoming, in some sense, as crazy as he was--it is trying to find a hidden order when there's no evidence of order, hidden or otherwise.

As Loughner did, however, if you are determined enough to find a hidden order, you can manufacture one.  The fundamental problem with using the Giffords tragedy as an indictment of conservative rhetoric is that the freelance prosecutors started by issuing the indictment, and then started looking for evidence to build their case as more information became available.  This is not exactly uncommon among real prosecutors when there's a lot of political pressure on, and it often results in some spectacularly weak cases.  And as with real prosecutors, when it turned out that the facts didn't really support their initial belief, the response was not to withdraw the indictment, but to frantically hunt for enough evidence to maybe get a conviction on a lesser included offense.

As any cognitive scientist will tell you, if you really go looking, you can build a case for almost anything you want to believe.  It's called confirmation bias: you start with a hypothesis, and then you look to see whether there are facts out there that confirm your hypothesis.  Since you aren't looking so aggressively for disconfirming evidence, it quickly comes to seem as if you have a pretty good case.  If you hadn't started with the hypothesis, however, you probably wouldn't have reached the same conclusion.  These are the cases that tend to fall apart dramatically in a courtroom, where the jury doesn't necessarily share your priors, and the other side gets to talk, too.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that this effect is particularly pronounced in politics.

The whole thing was somewhat egotistical, really--everyone immediately leaping to assume that the issues they most cared about surrounding Giffords (health care, regulation, the tea party) must also have been what Loughner cared about.  It wasn't crazy to suspect this--I too thought it might well be a recognizeably political assassination.  But the level of certainty was, I think, unwarranted--and because it immediately engendered attacks on other people, it became very difficult to retract that assessment.  It is relatively easy for a seasoned pundit to admit that you are wrong, but relatively difficult to admit that you have wronged someone else.  This is why I try not to write about how my opponents are a specially dreadful brand of moral degenerates; it makes it too hard to walk back when it turns out I was mistaken about the fact of the case.

As it happens, I'd be very happy to have a discussion about the overblown rhetoric on talk radio and cable--as I've long noted, I dislike the nastiness of Rush Limbaugh, the bombast of Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann, the strident parochialized victimhood of Sarah Palin.  But I am astonished that anyone believed, for even a minute, that now was a good time to have that discussion.  Did anyone really think they could have a productive dialogue that started by accusing the other side of inspiring, or encouraging, a horrific mass murder?  All I can say is, if you did, it must be something spectacular to watch when you finally decide that it's time to have that talk with the spouse about bathroom hygiene.