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AZ Rampage Leads to Wrong Conversation About Rhetoric

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on January 9, 2011

Just days after Thanksgiving, an emotionally unstable and overtly disturbed 22-year-old college dropout legally and easily purchased a semiautomatic Glock pistol. Six weeks later, Jared Lee Loughner showed up to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ “Congress On Your Corner” event outside a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday and opened fire on the congresswoman and the assembled crowd. His bullets hit 20 people, including Giffords in the back of the head at point-blank range.

Congresswoman Giffords is miraculously expected to live. Six people, however, died from their gunshot wounds. They are: U.S. District Judge John Roll; 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who had just been elected to her school’s student council; Gabe Zimmerman, a 30-year-old Giffords aide; Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Phyllis Scheck, 79.

Loughner’s true motives are still unclear, but the attack was clearly premeditated. Federal investigators on Sunday said they discovered a handwritten note inside a safe in Loughner’s house. According to an affidavit, the words “I planned ahead,” “my assassination” and “Giffords” were written on an envelope, along with Loughner’s signature.

Much of the focus in the aftermath of the shooting has been on political rhetoric. Before anyone even had time to process the prolonged shock or the profound sadness, society began looking for rational explanations to an irrational act of a mentally unstable lunatic. Did Sarah Palin stoke this violence with her famous bullseye-heavy “target” list? Was Loughner an anti-Semite associated with an extremist group online? Is he a Tea Party activist? A communist lefty? Did the worsening state of political rhetoric drive him to assassination? And even if rhetoric didn’t actually cause this shooting, can we discuss it anyway?

There’s a real opportunity here, but it’s not to dissect and parse congressional and media soundbytes and tweets. We have a chance to have a real conversation about mental health. It’s the conversation we pass up every time. We passed after Columbine. We passed after Virginia Tech. We pass after all the major traumatic events in which a disturbed individual needed help. Either we as a nation can’t grasp the concept enough to discuss it publicly, or we choose to do what many parents, friends and colleagues do: we sweep it under the rug. Not this time. We need this conversation at a time when so many people seem dangerously close to the breaking point. All the signs were there.

We know that Lynda Sorenson e-mailed her friends about his behavior in a community college course they shared: “We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon. Everyone interviewed would say, Yeah, he was in my math class and he was really weird. I sit by the door with my purse handy. If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast…”

Sorenson and Loughner’s professor, Ben McGahee, 28, worried about violence. “I remember going home and thinking to myself, ‘Is he going to bring a weapon to class?'” he told USA Today. He was kicked out of class, and ultimately school. But where was the professional help? What happened?

The NY Daily News on Monday posted an exclusive about a chilling shrine behind his home: “Hidden within a camouflage tent behind Jared Lee Loughner’s home sits an alarming altar with a skull sitting atop a pot filled with shriveled oranges. A row of ceremonial candles and a bag of potting soil lay nearby.”

This heinous crime cannot be blamed on mental illness alone. It’s not an excuse for what happened on Saturday. As this situation unfolds it seems more like a personal vendetta by an unbalanced individual rather than a political assassination — a friend told the Wall Street Journal “about how he was treated by the Arizona lawmaker during an event several years ago, which aggravated Mr. Loughner.”

In an exclusive interview with Mother Jones, Loughner’s friend Bryce Tierney describes the shooter as someone who held “a years-long grudge against Giffords and had repeatedly derided her as a ‘fake.'” That’s not political rhetoric amping him up. It’s a perceived slight, Holden Caulfield-style.

All the pointed political rhetoric in the world would be no match for a personal insult he felt from an earlier incident with the congresswoman. So while the national news media goes digging through the archives, while the left and right fight over who’s responsible for Loughner’s violence, now would be the perfect time to discuss what we need to do in this country to ensure those with mental illness get the proper treatment. This isn’t about Rush and Beck and Sarah and Fox News; this is about not getting people the help they need to live in the same society as the rest of us.

And we need this conversation now. We’ve got soldiers returning home from two wars and killing themselves in record number. We’ve got nearly one in 10 Americans out of work and near financial ruin. There are more Jared Lee Loughner’s out there. They might not kill sitting members of Congress, but they will act out with violence. And we need to treat them before it’s too late. Let’s have this conversation first. Then we can focus on the 140-character tweets that people seem so hellbent on analyzing.

On Sunday Federal authorities charged Loughner with two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and a count of attempting to kill a member of Congress.

Listen to some 911 calls from the scene at Safeway:

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik touched off a political debate when he said the following during his briefing on Saturday: “I’d just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Doctors are “cautiously optimistic” about Congresswoman Giffords’ condition. Dr. Peter Rhee, chief of trauma at University Medical Center and a veteran of battlefield hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, said things are “all going well.” Dr. Rhee said Giffords’ was also able to follow simple commands:

Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at University Medical Center, also briefed reporters. Dr. Lemole happily reported that the bullet did not cross from one side to another, did not cross through the geometric center of the brain. That’s why she’s able to communicate this morning. A good sign:

Watch this flashback to March 2009 when Congresswoman Giffords spoke with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie about Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” target map. Giffords talks about some threats and vandalism of her office, saying the “crosshairs” ad has “consequences.” Eerily prescient.

This briefing discusses some of the acts of heroism, including the tackling of Loughner.

One of those heroes is Daniel Hernandez, an intern who’d been on the job just five days. Hernandez ran toward the gunfire and checked the pulses of several injured in the crowd. When he got to Giffords, he “applied pressure to the entry wound on her forehead. He pulled her into his lap, holding her upright against him so she wouldn’t choke on her own blood. Giffords was conscious, but quiet…He stayed with Giffords until paramedics arrived. They strapped her to a board and loaded her into an ambulance. Hernandez climbed in with her. On the ride to the hospital, he held her hand. She squeezed his back.”

Fox & Friends’ Gretchen Carlson on Sunday interviewed the mother of 9-year-old Christina Green, the youngest victim of Loughner’s rampage. Among the sad details we learned from this heartbreaking interview: Christina was born on September 11, 2001 and was just elected to the Student Council.

FBI Director Robert Mueller on Sunday said that Loughner is now in federal custody and discussed the safety of other public officials — at this time no specific threats remain, he said.

CBS’ Bob Shieffer closed Sunday’s edition of Face the Nation with an editorial comment. An excerpt: “We scream and shout – hurl charges without proof. Those on the other side of the argument become not opponents but enemies. Dangerous, inflammatory words are used with no thought of consequence. All’s fair if it makes the point. Worse, some make great profit just fanning the flames. Which wouldn’t amount to much if the words reached only the sane and the rational, but the new technology insures a larger audience. Those with sick and twisted minds hear us, too, and are sometimes inflamed by what the rest of us often discard as hollow and silly rhetoric. And so violence becomes part of the argument.”

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