There has been much concern in the American media about Jared Loughner’s sanity, lots of talk about the fact we cannot comprehend the mind behind that cold face, talk followed by overextended attempts to mine that mind’s deepest veins. “If you think what happened in Tuscon is incomprehensible…” a 60 Minutes piece from last week began, keep watching, we’ll help you comprehend. Is Loughner “disturbed enough to be found guilty but insane?” the New York Times mulled in the Magazine last weekend. The answer is yes, they hint.
But no one is calling Loughner a terrorist.
In May 1995, Time had a terrorist on the cover: Timothy McVeigh was shown with the caption, “The Face of Terror.” Time’s lede for another story on McVeigh is also pretty clear in its framing:
Terrorists succeed by remaining faceless. Their very anonymity allows them to move unnoticed among and around the people they plan, for reasons of their own, to maim or murder. But terrorists also occasionally get caught, although often, alas, after they have done their worst. And then the sight of their faces only deepens the mystery of their actions.
Like McVeigh, Loughner targeted a symbol of government power, and hurt innocent people. Like McVeigh, Loughner had a complicated relationship with the military and, like McVeigh, he apparently had a deep mistrust of the United States government. Jared Loughner, like Timothy McVeigh, “had reasons of his own,” which are and always will be inaccessible to the rest of us.
But we called McVeigh a terrorist. Why isn’t Loughner a terrorist? Has America redefined its criteria for who can be one?
This is not to say Loughner’s actions weren’t swept up into other people’s political frameworks. To be sure, after the shooting, there was a flurry of conversation about politics. Or rather, “politics.” David Brooks argued that mainstream coverage overemphasized possible political motivations, with all the talk of Sarah Palin’s map and the “violent rhetoric of the Tea Party.” Brooks describes “a news media that is psychologically ill informed but politically inflamed, so it naturally leads toward political explanations.” Brooks is right in his diagnosis, but I see the opposite symptom: the media may be psychologically ill informed, but that hasn’t stopped them from attempting to psychologize Loughner to the nth degree.
Moreover, such an excavation of Loughner’s mind as those extended by the Times and 60 Minutes seems to be a privilege the media only affords, in 2011, to some violent men. Men who are called terrorists are ascribed political, ideological motivations. Loughner’s mental illness does not preclude such motivations – but our media’s language does, dismissing his admittedly confused political logic as the babble of a madman.
There is a rich body of academic literature examining the psychology of terrorism. Jeff Victorof notes that though there is a lack of consensus on what defines terrorism,
“two common elements are usually found in contemporary definitions: (1) that terrorism involves aggression against non-combatants and (2) that the terrorist action in itself is not expected by its perpetrator to accomplish a political goal but instead to influence a target audience and change that audience’s behavior in a way that will serve the interests of the terrorist” (Victoroff, 2005).
By this definition, at least, McVeigh was a terrorist and so was Loughner: the latter’s YouTube videos and writings, incoherent as they are, indicate he wanted to influence the opinions of others, to wake us up to whatever it was he imagined we needed waking up to. (Or more aptly, given Loughner’s alleged interest in lucid dreaming, to come join him in his dream world.)
Loughner himself was concerned, is concerned, with whether the scarlet T applies to him – though whether he wants it to is unclear:
“If I define terrorist, then a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon. I define terrorist,” he wrote. “If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is ad hominem. You call me a terrorist.”
But he is not being called a terrorist. Could it be that there are some people, who do terrible things, to whom psychology is granted, and there are others, who do terrible things, to whom psychology denied?
The New York Times and 60 Minutes have decided Loughner is mad: their stories, among countless others, track his “well worn path to madness,” as the latter puts it: surveying his garbled writings, interviewing his former friends’ who speak about when he started acting a bit weird, then more than a bit. The programme then speaks with two Secret Service experts on assassins whose interviews with everyone from Hinkley to Sirhan Sirhan indicate “It was not politics, it was madness.” In some ways, isn't this safer, this madman who is not a terrorist?
In their way, the Times makes a nod toward balance, setting up a binary opposition: when it comes to Loughner, they say, there are “those who see premeditation” and “those who suspect he is insane, and therefore a step removed from being responsible for his actions…” Are the insane unable to plan? Do only terrorists plan? Is he a terrorist, or is he mad? The word terrorist remains unspoken: apparently, it could never apply here, not now.
The media’s concern with sanity or insanity, and its quickness to find for the latter, indicates a reluctance to view terrorism as psychological, and, to flip things around, a reluctance to view a troubled young white American with no religious ties as a terrorist. In 1995, this was not a distinction we made so easily.
My concern here is ultimately about semantics: what will we call Jared Loughner, rather than, why did he do what he did. The latter may not be answerable. The 60 Minutes interview closes with Loughner’s longhaired friend, the one with the headband, being pushed by the interviewer to elucidate Loughner’s confused beliefs. The friend says this is exactly the conversation Loughner would want: “[us] to question why and not be given an answer.”