The coincidence next time

I wrote a few days ago about a prominent psychologist’s belief that — even if he didn’t identify with a particular political movement — Jared Loughner may have been influenced by right-wing vitriol. Greg Sargent spoke to a psychologist who said much the same thing:

“We know the manifestation of mental illness is affected by cultural factors,” Dr. Swartz said. “One’s cultural context does effect people’s thinking and particularly their delusions. It gives some content and shape to their delusions. While we don know whether there was a specific relationship between the political climate that he was exposed to and his thinking, it’s a reasonable line of inquiry to explore.”

Asked whether Loughner’s mental illness invalidated questions as to whether his behavior might have been partly caused by the political climate or by violent rhetoric and imagery, Dr. Swartz said it shouldn’t.

“Studying the cultural influences on people’s delusions or persecutory thinking, and looking at different aspects of culture and how they effect people’s behavior, is a legitmate area of inquiry,” Dr. Swartz said.

Commenter Ecks, who is also a psychology Phd, also agrees.

But who cares what a bunch of psychologists say? Ross Douthat and Joe Klein say there can’t be a connection and they’re the real experts here (as in all topics). Increasingly, this reminds me of the debate over fiscal policy, where quantitatively illiterate Villagers’ unsubstantiated fear of debt drowned out the voices of Nobel laureate economists.

There’s a been a lot of political violence over the past 20 years, nearly all of it aimed either at people considered to be on the left (abortion providers, Democratic Congressmen) or the federal government directly (Oklahoma City, that IRS building). It’s all a big coincidence that this happened during a time of extreme right-wing rhetoric.

The next time a doctor or a Congressmen or a federal worker gets shot or blown up (I hope the violence ends but I don’t see why it should), that will be a coincidence too.

48 replies
  1. 1
    Cacti says:

    Well, Sarah Palin said crimes “begin and end with the criminals who commit them.” Who you gonna believe?

  2. 2
    debbie says:

    Of course there’s a connection, but once again the right asserts that in the absence of a literal connection, there wasn’t any kind of legitimate connection. This is the same kind of argument Condi Rice used when she said they could have prevented 9/11 if they’d been told a group of fanatics were going to take planes armed only with box cutters and slam them into the Towers. It wasn’t enough that there were warnings of a highjacking. They needed the very specific information.

  3. 3
    geg6 says:

    It’s always a coincidence when some rightwing nutbag decides to take out a bunch of liberals or government workers and any unfortunates who may happen to standing near them. Always.

    It reminds me of when my niece was a toddler and I’d be babysitting her and she would act up. When I would reprimand her, she’d do the whole put the fingers in the ears and shout “La la la la, I can’t hear you!” act.

    I’m so, so sick of this country. Seriously. I am going to start researching jobs in other countries. I simply can’t take this place or the majority of people in it any more.

  4. 4
    sukabi says:

    @debbie: even if they’d had a handwritten plan with all the dates, times and locations, signatures and full contact info for the perpetrators it still would have gone down… and we would have gotten the same “no one could have anticipated” bullshit from the Wrecking Crew…

  5. 5
    S. cerevisiae says:

    Weren’t these the same clowns looking for backwards satanic messages in Judas Priest songs that caused kids to commit suicide?

    That’s right, logic doesn’t work in their universe.

  6. 6
    feebog says:

    The connection between Loughner and the right wing rhetoric may not be as clear as some other recent examples: Beck’s targeting of the Tides Fourndation and the subsequent terrorist plot and O’Rielly’s “Tiller the baby killer” rants followed by Tiller’s murder in his church come to mind. But, and it is a big but, there is no doubt that Loughner’s thinking (if it can be called that) mirrored specific Right Wingnut talking points; the gold standard, Government prosecution, and so on. He got it from somewhere, and it wasn’t Karl Marx.

  7. 7
    Tom Levenson says:

    This is exactly right. Before I got completely slammed, I started to do some reporting on this last week. Spoke to, among others, Cornell psychiatrist and NY Times occasional contributer Richard Friedman, and he said much the same thing — adding that its a mistake to think of people like Loughner as being mentally ill in the sense of being wholly crazy. The truly mentally disordered people can’t organize themselves sufficiently to put together the sequence of actions needed to do what Loughner did.

    This isn’t to say he was in his right mind — that’s not what Friedman was saying to me either. It is that even with the mental derangement needed to enable someone to walk into a parking lot and murder strangers, there is a functioning mind there capable of receiving and responding to the kinds of stimuli that might make one choose a Democratic congresswoman as opposed, say, to the first red-headed gentleman one might see.

  8. 8
    susteph says:

    if words have no influence over actions, someone should tell the multi-billion-dollar advertising industry that they’ve been wasting their money lo these many years…

  9. 9
    Jules says:

    I’m sure that DoucheHat also thought that the spewings of Beck and Hannity had nothing to do with the church shooting in TN by the guy who was killing liberals because they allowed gays in their church and were dangerous to America.

  10. 10
    eemom says:

    Totally apart from the politics of all this, the NYT had a good piece yesterday detailing Loughner’s descent into madness, which I recommend:;st=cse

    It is just so very sad: a young man devastated by illness, no one reaching out to help him — and a society eager to sell him guns.

  11. 11
    J says:

    You left out Charles Blow, according to whom wondering whether there might be a connection between the ceaseless flow of violent right-wing rhetoric, full of lies and slanders and barely concealed incitement to violence and real acts of violence like the murders in Tucson is not to be distinguished from greeting the deaths with glee.

    “There was a giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left. ”

    Remember when everything went disastrously wrong in Iraq the people to blame were… the uniquely wicked American ‘left’ who had predicted disaster and warned against the war.

    JC wondered how we can be losing to people who enthusiastically advocate war and torture, would like to see the end of laws prohibiting child labor, and are probably dreaming of repealing the emancipation proclamation. Could it have something to do with the fact that the worthies in the establishment press who can look at the attempted murder of a Democratic congresswoman and the murder of six human beings and decide that the villains of the piece are liberals or the ‘left’ are never going to do their job and help the public understand where the blame lies for the sorry mess we’re in?

  12. 12
    Max says:

    I’d just observe that if this were random political violence, we’d expect to see a random distribution of victims. If victims *are* predominantly from other than the right, it suggests something systematic is at work.

  13. 13
    JPL says:

    @debbie: If we had informed the pilots, they might have tilted the plane. Many pilots are retired military and who knows what type of maneuvers they would have taken. If we had informed the airlines, they might have locked their doors and who knows what type of economic impact that would have had. Bergen has a new book out called The Longest War and Condi is not treated nicely but she is treated accurately according to review in the NYTimes.

    Back to topic at hand, I’m not a psychologist but I wonder if his anger wouldn’t have directed elsewhere.

  14. 14
    DougJarvus Green-Ellis says:


    No one even pretends to care what Charles Blow thinks, though. He’s verging on Applebaum/Cohen irrelevance.

  15. 15
    sal says:

    To be fair to the Villagers, they’re much more innumerate than illiterate. Myopic as well, unable to see anything beyond the Village in anything but a blur they mistake for divine order.

  16. 16
    Lumpy says:

    If Liberals had held dozens of political rallies where people held signs saying “We Came Unarmed (This Time)” etc, the media would have been outraged, especially over an issue like taxes going up or down by 3%. But when Conservatives do it, ooh it’s so exciting! I’m hearing people in the media claim that nothing can be done – we can’t outlaw offensive political signs! No, but you can treat them the same way you treat Fred Phelps – either don’t cover that story in the mass media, or treat them with the derision that they deserve.

  17. 17
    dr. bloor says:

    OK, I’ll be the turd in the punch bowl here. Dr. Swartz is quite right in discussing the extent to which an environmental context can shape behavior of the mentally ill (or others–there’s a classic social psych study that I can barely recall in which the mere presence of a gun makes ostensibly normal people more aggressive). Swartz is also quite right in saying that it’s a legitimate “line of inquiry” into identifying the motivating factors behind Loughner’s behavior. But to go any farther than that, based on what is publicly available, isn’t much more sophisticated that Dr. Frist diagnosing Terry Schaivo via video.

  18. 18
    greennotGreen says:

    What happened to comments!!! They’re all smushed together like references at the end of a paper. And the fonts are all the same size and nothing is bolded. I’m using Firefox on an XP-Pro 64-bit machine. When I checked the site this morning on my home 32-bit box, everything looked fine.

  19. 19
    eemom says:

    @DougJarvus Green-Ellis:

    No one even pretends to care what Charles Blow thinks, though.

    True, but that particular column really was a masterpiece of stupidity, of the kind you can’t achieve just by being an idiot and opening your mouth. That thing took effort.

  20. 20
    Calouste says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    The Secret Service did a study of assassins in the US (full study and additional material) and one of their conclusions is indeed that “…the great majority of assassins were not mentally ill—none were models of emotional well-being, but relatively few suffered from serious mental illnesses that
    caused their attack behaviors.”

  21. 21
    Tony J says:


    Don’t you get it? The Liberal Media are just trying to help the Democrats understand that America is a centre-right nation where people simply don’t get as outraged by Righty hate-speech as they do by Lefty snark.

    One is a valuable and treasured link with your rough-and-tumble past, the other is a limp-wristed slap in the face administered to people who have guns and don’t appreciate back-talk.

    It’s entirely what the Founders intended when they made gun-ownership the only binding Constitutional requirement.

  22. 22
    Bill Arnold says:

    This is not hard. If you stir up your base with violent (or even coy-violent) rhetoric, you will stir up crazies, both in your base and unaffiliated.
    (Technically, this is probabilistic statement and only true if the base and unaffiliated have a large enough number of crazies, maybe 50+. Something like believing that all the air molecules in the room won’t suddenly coincidentally move to the north side of the room you’re in, which would be bad because the south wall and ceiling would implode in and the north wall would explode out, and probably kill you.)

  23. 23
    eemom says:

    @dr. bloor:

    But to go any farther than that, based on what is publicly available, isn’t much more sophisticated that Dr. Frist diagnosing Terry Schaivo via video.

    I have wondered about that — is it really comparable? Because in a Terry Schiavo situation you would obviously need to physically examine the person, look at all their CAT scans and MRIs and other diagnostic tests, etc. Isn’t it a little different in the context of fitting some reported behaviors into known diagnostic criteria for mental illness?

    I know nothing about this, and I am totally not arguing, just asking.

  24. 24
    WaterGirl says:

    @greennotGreen: Refresh your cache. From another thread:

    In most browsers you reload a page and refresh its cached parts with Ctrl-F5 or Ctrl-Shift-R or Command-F5.
    @Jon H – says “On Safari on Mac, it’s Option-Command-E”

  25. 25
    Ash Can says:

    @greennotGreen: Hit Ctrl+F5.

  26. 26
    gnomedad says:

    And yet every time someone gets mugged, it’s the fault of permissive liberal culture, Dr. Spock, lack of school prayer, etc.

  27. 27
    Ecks says:

    Woo, I’m famous. My name makes it to the front page for the second time ever :)

    I’m not a psychologist but I wonder if his anger wouldn’t have directed elsewhere.

    Yes, probably. paranoid schizo (which is what this guy probably is) is one of the very very few mental conditions that actually is associated with violence. It’s far from inevitable that they’ll attack anyone, and if they’re well contained they won’t. But it does happen. For an intersting read, check out the professor and the madman. A paranoid schizo American in Victorian London shot a random guy on the street that his delusions made him think had been breaking into his house, was committed to a mental institution, and there became a leading contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. Fascinating portrait. He was totally convinced that Irishmen were sneaking into his room at night, poisoning him, and taking him around the world where they forced him to perform degrading sex acts (see, his madness reflected the cultural experience HE grew up with), but was otherwise a sane functioning, smart guy capable of immense discipline and steady work.

    Side note: This tragedy can also be read as a condemnation of our society that if he’d shot the exact same people, except substituting the politician for a doctor or lawyer or welder or whatever, then there would barely have been a ripple of notice in the media or any of our awareness. It might not even make the front page of the local paper.

    @dr. bloor: You’re right that we can’t read too much into this guy’s specific case as if we were lawyers putting specific influences on trial. Just like we can’t be sure that pack-a-day grandma was done in by tobacco. But across many people, patterns become clear, and it is not unreasonable to think about the cases of specific people in light of what we know about those patterns.

  28. 28
    greennotGreen says:

    Here’s my on-topic comment.
    I think that people with disorganized thought patterns, i.e., the mentally ill, cling to authoritarian or fundamentalist ideologies because those ideologies provide them the clarity they lack internally. If you’re a group that has very strict rules about dress and behavior and and you’re very peaceful, you can be a haven of normalcy for someone on the edge. But if you’re a group that has very strict rules about dress and behavior and and you’re convinced that people who don’t live by your rules are evil and a threat to all that’s good and holy in the world, the outcome for those same on-the-edge people can be very different.

  29. 29
    cckids says:

    @Cacti: It’s one of the infuriating parts of this debate: the apologists on the right cannot seem to distinguish between placing some moral responsibility for the general hateful tone of rhetoric & the actual legal responsibility for pulling the trigger. Two very different things.

  30. 30
    Maude says:

    @DougJarvus Green-Ellis:
    In the last post about Levin, my comments 38 and 39 are in moderation and I have no idea why.

  31. 31
    Lit3Bolt says:

    I was visiting with conservative in-laws over the weekend, and the hemming and hawing about “being blamed” for Jared Loughner was overwhelming. So were the mass delusions about deficits and single minded focus of Obama hatred. I knew it existed, but at the same time it astounds me.

    The thing is, I had a very nice candid conversation with a conservative former police officer and Vietnam Vet who knew exactly what I was talking about with drug, prison, gun, mental health reform. But they’re so whipped up by Glenn Beck’s 2012/revolutionary rhetoric and endless Obama Derangement syndrome Fox News stories that they can’t hold a single thought in their head about channeling any anger at the real villains, such as corporate America or our shifty bullshit Media. They’re deathly afraid of China and Mexico, but can’t equate Galtian Overlords as being complicit in the problems we have with those countries. They equate corporate America with Democrats and liberals. It’s a propaganda coup of astonishing levels.

  32. 32
    Montysano says:

    It seems to me that the basic question is this: why a politician? Why not just go down to the mall and open fire?

    I feel about 80% certain that we’ll eventually learn that the Beck/Palin gang were a contributing factor. Oh.. and Mark Levin too, also. Didn’t mean to leave you out, little guy.

  33. 33
    Montysano says:


    But they’re so whipped up by Glenn Beck’s 2012/revolutionary rhetoric and endless Obama Derangement syndrome Fox News stories that they can’t hold a single thought in their head about channeling any anger at the real villains, such as corporate America.

    But they do know that Brawndo has electrolytes, yes?

  34. 34
    Mike G says:

    But who cares what a bunch of psychologists say? Ross Douthat and Joe Klein say there can’t be a connection and they’re the real experts here (as in all topics).

    And Flush and Hannity are experts on climatology, petroleum geology and evolutionary biology. The teatards are authoritarian-followers who only listen to their magical demi-gods who are infallible and omniscient. And they’ll openly threaten you with their guns if you disagree politically.

    But just wait until a CEO gets shot, then it will be “blood on the hands” of some obscure commenter on a lefty blog from 2007.

  35. 35
    Cat Lady says:


    Hurricanes and tornadoes are also the fault of teh ghey. Somehow the talibevangelicals are able to convince enough of their sheeple of the logic of that to keep the cash coming.

  36. 36
    Tim I says:

    I don’t disagree with your argument, Doug, but as a survivor of the sixties, I don’t think you need to focus on the recent period of right-wing ascendancy to discover that politics in America are extremely violent and that most of this violence comes from the right.

    This is not to say that violent assholes like the Weathermen or the Symbionese Liberation Army have not been spawned by the left – but they are rank amateurs who generally die in gum battles with the police shortly after they are formed.

  37. 37
    goatchowder says:

    When was the last right-wing politician assassinated in America?

    The last right-wing politician I can remember even being shot at, was Reagan, in 1981. The guy who shot him was a family friend of the Bush family, so I’m not sure I’d call that left wing violence (a coup attempt by Bush, perhaps, or at least that’s what it looked like at the time).

    But seriously, the last instances of left-wing violence were the Weathermen in the 1970s, and they didn’t actually kill anyone but themselves.

    When was the last time anyone on the left assassinated anyone on the right? In the 1920s? The 1880s? Never?

  38. 38
    Ecks says:

    @eemom: The difference between this and Schiavo is this:

    Schiavo’s doctors physically inspected, examined, and interacted with her, administered whatever tests or scans they thought medically appropriate, and pronounced, on the basis of this extensive evidence, an official diagnosis that she was brain dead. Frist publicly contradicted this diagnosis on the basis of extremely flimsy evidence (i.e., watching a video). There are two ways to look at this, and both of them are bad.
    1) He did it as a medical professional looking out for the well-being of a patient. In this case he called into doubt the competency of her own chosen doctors on the basis of a shoddily unprofessional standard of evidence, and, worse, took the grossly inappropriate step in publicly revealing medical information about a patient without her legal consent.

    2) He did it as a sitting politician, transparently abusing the gravitas of his medical degree to turn a private tragedy into cheap political points. This cheapens both the patient by making a highly sympathetic victim into a blatant pawn, and cheapens the respect that should be accorded his degree.

    In contrast, in this forum here,
    a) We are trying to explain a criminal act carried out in broad public view, rather than prying into the medical history of a private citizen.

    b) None of us claim to be anything other than people speculating on the internet. Those of us with relevant education are pitching in some background info to help inform the speculation. To whit, Many of us think that he’s likely a paranoid schizo, and so in the interest of educating the public, we’re talking about salient aspects of how paranoid schizophrenia generally works. Nothing wrong with that.
    Nobody here is even making any claims with strong legal implications (such as who is directly responsible, or what the status of anybodies life support systems should be). We’re just noting that it is extremely plausible that the atmosphere of violence-tinged hate that the right wing generates could very plausibly contribute to exactly this type of attack. On this strength we’re arguing that it would be both prudent and humane for people on the right wing to dial the paranoia back down to just regular political distrust and disagreement, and ditch the apocalyptic overtones.

    That’s why it’s different.

  39. 39
    Zach says:

    I guess it got lost in the noise, but just before Loughner’s attack, some crazy person who obviously wasn’t influenced by right wing vitriol mailed explosives to Md. Gov. Martin O’Malley, the Md. Secretary of Transportation, and Janet Napolitano. The perpetrator was someone paranoid about the surveillance state. But, you know, crazy people do crazy things.

  40. 40
    DougJarvus Green-Ellis says:


    It’s also different in that the Douthat/Klein line is that if you think it’s okay to as if the shooter was influenced, then you are worse than Hitler. Whereas with Schiavo, everyone agreed that it was important to answer the underlying question of what kind of shape her brain was in.

  41. 41
    DougJarvus Green-Ellis says:

    @Tim I:

    I am only familiar with this era, though. I do think some of it is experiencing the vitriol first hand. When I listen to Savage or Beck, it’s frightening and frightening in a way that something like RedState isn’t. It’s hard for me to gauge how bad things were before.

  42. 42
    Ecks says:

    @DougJarvus Green-Ellis: No no no. You aren’t “worse than Hitler”. You’re just uncouth. They wouldn’t dignify you with all out war, you are merely to be ignored until such time as you learn your lessons sufficiently to be ready for polite company serious discussion. It’s all very Victorian really. Just imagine Douthat and/or Klein in a morning suit, with a good starched collar and ruddy cheeks, and lambchop sideburns saying things like:

    It simply doesn’t bear thinking about my good fellow. It is a vulgar notion that the discourse of state be waylaid by the flighty fancies of the fairer sex smugly pointing fingers. It simply is not on, old stick, it just isn’t cricket.

  43. 43
    DougJarvus Green-Ellis says:


    Actually, Klein isn’t so bad that way, he answers my emails usually.

  44. 44
    Catsy says:


    I have wondered about that—is it really comparable?

    No it’s not, and there’s another more important distinction to be made as well: the nontrivial difference between remotely diagnosing a specific medical condition on a specific person, and making a more general connection between the escalation of violent and threatening rhetoric on the right and the attempted assassination of a Democratic politician who had been the subject of some of the worst of that rhetoric.

    To put it another way, it’s legitimately debatable to what extent that kind of rhetorical violence had on Loughner. To reject outright the likelihood that it had any effect at all requires an impressive display of ignorance or denial.

    These fuckers doth protest far, far too much. They give away the game every time they open their mouths to object that there’s nothing wrong with violent rhetoric even when their party or their words isn’t being specifically singled out.

  45. 45
    Ecks says:

    @DougJarvus Green-Ellis: So you’re saying he thinks you’re WAY worse than Hitler then ;)

    I confess I don’t follow the various personalities of the village too closely. I’m sure a lot of them are really nice people when you get to know them, and some will have far higher tolerances for the various shrill types of the right and left (the view from nowhere lets them see both as equivalent – indeed makes a virtue of seeing them that way) than others.

  46. 46
    Jess says:

    I feel like I’m channeling Broder here, but I keep going back and forth on this. I absolutely defend the right of film makers, artists, writers, and commentators to explore any concept and make any argument using whatever language they see fit. I don’t blame a free marketplace of ideas for evil behavior. So it seems wrong to me not to extend the same logic to politicians. But on the other hand, we certainly have the same right to present our arguments criticizing those politicians–we’re just saying what we think, just like they are.

    And my criticism of the right is this: they’ve made political hay out of tapping into and harnessing the nation’s id–certainly most people making under $100k/year couldn’t justify voting GOP on rational grounds–and having released the beast, they need to take a certain amount of responsibility. If you want to be a leader, you have to think about what you’re leading your followers into. The Palins of the world need to cowboy up and either lead responsibly or stfu.

  47. 47
    Ecks says:

    @Jess: Exactly. They have the RIGHT to say any of this dumb shit they want, but you’d hope at some point they’d take responsibility for the fact that they’re making money in a way that costs people lives now and again, and they could probably make almost as much money without doing that.

    But then again, major industries have never been very keen on taking those sorts of lessons to heart when they weren’t made to.

  48. 48

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