“He was just crazy” isn’t good enough.

January 11th, 2011 | Filed under: Opinion

Being far away from America means I live without the 24-hour news cycle of American CNN. I don’t have to watch a ticker across the bottom of the screen tell me which talking head is outraged by Obama’s call to the Philadelphia Eagles owner. In return I get news sources that are more global and cover issues like conflict in Sudan and the use of rape as a weapon of war in Africa. Anyone can do this by adjusting your personal news sources, though I didn’t do it myself until moving to Northern Europe. I don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier…

But a few days ago I couldn’t miss the horrific shooting at a Safeway grocery store in Arizona where a number of people were murdered, including an innocent 9-year-old girl. It hadn’t hit my global news sources yet, but my Twitter network was in full force with people tweeting their feelings of shock, dismay, and utter frustration at the hate. Some speculated about the lack of serious gun control in America and its role in the event. Others wondered how much Tea Party rhetoric played a role in the gunman’s decision to attack this political meeting organized by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords,  a Democrat from Arizona who according to the latest reports is recovering from surgery. She was shot in the head.

We don’t know yet (and we may never, truly) if the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was compelled by the vitriolic rhetoric and campaigns of the Tea Party and extreme conservatives to attend the Giffords event with the goal of assassinating the representative. She has been outspoken about the xenophobic and hateful policies instituted by Arizona in an attempt to curb illegal immigration. One can’t ignore the language used by these campaigns to foment outrage and anger among a constituency that is anti-other and carries guns to political rallies. Words like “eliminate” in reference to contenders in races, “in the cross-hairs,” “on the attack.” Is it typical campaign language or is it something else? Language is power. To deny that is to essentially put your head in the sand and pretend the world doesn’t exist. What we say and how we say it has meaning, something I try to teach my students always when words like “faggot” or “retarded” pop up in class. Loughner may well be a psychopath – there’s no other way to describe someone who shoots up a group of random people in a grocery store – but how much did language play a part in how he decided to release that rage? For many people on the outskirts of society, people like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris of the Columbine shootings, they often find solace in communities that are outside the norm. For years people tried to connect shootings like this to horror-core and other music genres, but most of us cried out in the name of censorship and said no, this is just a result of a community leaving these boys behind and children bullying, knowing not how they hurt others in doing so. Others lamented weak gun legislation. And of course there are always the people that shake their heads, call the shooters crazy, and move on from the event choosing never to reflect on how they could have done something.

But which is it? I’m a rabid support of free speech. Even in cases where I hate the subject and wish others weren’t writing/painting/singing about it in an attempt to raise even more supporters, I deal with it because I see it as a necessary part of supporting the right to free speech. But how far is too far? Most journalism students learned the case of Schenck v. United States where the phrase “clear and present danger” was first used (speech should be free unless it creates a clear and present danger to others). This can be stretched to fit anyone’s argument (for or against), but we must think about it in moments like these, even just a little. And maybe Loughner’s shooting had nothing to do with Tea Party rhetoric. Maybe he is just a psychotic killer and not a psychotic killer that’s also a Tea Party member (Jacob Weisberg tackled the idea that Loughner may have been influenced by both mental illness and political rhetoric on Slate.com, calling it “politically tinged schizophrenia” while David Greenberg labeled Loughner a political assassin.). The question still remains: How are we going to deal with a society that seems to be growing ever more hateful and outraged and a political system that purposely taps into that rage to push agendas only to back away and say “no, he was just crazy” when it blows up in their faces? I say these things, but then the hairs on my back stand on end when I realize I’m pushing to limit speech that is used in many situations (political campaigns, sports games, etc.). Maybe I’m just looking for a big group or movement to blame, something on which I can take out my anger when I see the faces of the innocent dead on web pages.

Blaming something big and without a face is easy…looking inside ourselves to see what we could have done to prevent this is not. As a teacher it’s my job to reach out and support my students – all of them – even when there are so many I can’t seem to find the bottom of the grading pile. And especially those students that seem to be on the fringe, getting lost in their own thoughts and shameful memories, bullied by students for being so damn different. This isn’t to say that it’s always the “weird kid” that ends up going on a murderous rampage, but it doesn’t hurt to care for those students and show them they aren’t alone in whatever they might be dealing with at home or just in their own heads. As news sources try to find explanations for an unthinkable event we will no doubt learn more about Jared. He already has a pretty clear digital footprint that should have been a warning to someone, but it’s hard to tell in a world where anyone can upload anything, where insanity and fringe behavior are rewarded with more hits and views. Loughner is getting lots of views and hits right now, but the warning signs are lost on viewers. It’s too late.

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