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Face to Face With Insanity The dark 1970s film Taxi Driver depicts an aimless young man distintigrating rapidly as he fixates on a plan to assassinate a political candidate. In an improbable twist of fate, he ends up doing something of a good deed. There will be no such neat wrapup of the real life violence on Saturday, January 8, in Tucson, Arizona, when a distintigrating young man took aim at a Congresswoman and shot six people to death, and wounded 19, including his target.

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Face to Face With Insanity

Illustration by Zina Saunders

In the windup of the 70s movie classic _Taxi Driver_ , Robert DeNiro shows up at a political rally in an Army jacket, a Mohawk haircut and wire rim shades. He is armed and dangerous, and the Secret Service perceives this in an instant and starts to move in on him. The mentally disintegrating character, Travis Bickle, perceives them and flees to his second target, a low-level pimp on the lower East Side for his final descent from reality. If you remember the movie, it has a happy ending. In the coda, we find out that everything was neatly wrapped up.

The ending of the story that exploded in the media on Saturday January 8 won't have a neat ending. A disintegrating young man ran a red light in Tucson, Arizona, that morning. The police stopped him, didn't think much of the infraction and sent him on his way. His father wondered what was in his black bag when he left the house that morning, and tried to take a look. The young man, Jared Loughner ran off. Later, a cab driver took him to the supermarket, where he performed his mission, but didn't find anything out of the ordinary.

The night before he wrote a goodbye note on MySpace, one probably identical to tens of thousands of others written by surly young people. He had a picture of a pistol on his profile page, and liked to practice shooting, again like tens of thousands young people. He called a friend late Friday night, but the friend didn't want to be bothered. Loughner could be a pain in the ass. When the friend heard about the shootings the next day, the thought, “Jared did it,” crossed his mind. This is pretty eerie stuff, but it's just sand that runs through the fingers.

When I saw the first headlines that an Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot, and possibly killed, at a constituent event at a supermarket in Tucson, I looked for the explanation, for the cause. My politics showed through. I thought she might have been a target of exuberant tea partiers. My hometown paper, the New York Times didn't manage to even tell me whether she was Republican or Democrat for quite awhile. As the afternoon wore on, the reporters and bloggers plugged away, quickly establishing what happened and turning their attention to why this young man, killed six strangers and wounded 18 others, as well as Representative Giffords, who may or may not recover.

The pros, the reporters, weren't so quick at first. The bloggers were the first to track down the assailant's social networking ravings, taking screen shots, copying files and speculating. Immediately, people on the left found evidence of right-wing terrorism in his nonsensical writings and reading list; people on the right who found evidence of left-wing revolution in the very same sources. But after chewing over MySpace and YouTube, they had nowhere else to go.

I looked at the videos, which were simply composed of series of text panels of gibberish about currencies, governments and grammar, and looked at his information on his spare MySpace page. I am willing to bet that the man who wrote those lines did not read and understand the books on his reading list. Almost any middle-class teen-ager considers these texts cool, stylishly rebellious — whether read or not. His own words should be the tip-off. They were not cryptic, but crazy.

It took a few days, for the police to do the searches and interviews with friends and neighbors, and for the professionals in the news business to feret the information out of the cops: Loughner was a pretty troubled young man. As you all know, he was caught immediately and jailed. When he appeared in court, the authorities released his photo. I thought back about DeNiro as Travis Bickle. A pale rendition of insanity when compared with the grinning, shaved bald Loughner.

If someone sat down next to you on the subway, grinning like that, and spewing his nonsense about becoming the treasurer of all of your three personal currencies, you wouldn't stop to wonder about the derivation of his notions but would quickly and quietly slip away. It's silly to hear political partisans try to pin the blame on their enemies.

In hindsight, it should be easy to see this, but the debate goes on. Every news site that allow comments is recording a public debate that sounds like a schoolyard argument: “Did.” “Did not.” “Did.” “Did not.” They insist on a kind of clarity that just does not exist in the world.

Insanity is poorly understood, and no treatment addresses the underlying problem. At least we've stopped giving the mentally ill high voltage or cutting out pieces of their brains. But powerful psychotropic drugs are not a cure, although they may make the rest of us feel better. In my work in artificial intelligence, I have come to be completely awed by the power of the human brain. With the monumental complexity, it's not surprising that a very small percentage of minds are way off. And like so much in nature, the situation is not clear cut.

As the news reporters began doing their thing, following the cops, tracking down people who had at one time or another encountered this lonely young man, a picture emerges of a pot-smoker who liked to spout things unsophisticated young people might call philosophical. At one point, he tried but failed to join the Army, possibly because he failed a urine test. From his photos from the past, he looked and sounded a lot like Kevin Smith's 20-something slackers. Not distinguishable from millions of smirking and scowling teenagers.

Maybe all the talk about the undercurrent of anger in political discourse will be a good thing, but there are many reasons other than Loughner to engage in that.

It was interesting that Giffords had fought a tough campaign against a tea-party candidate in November, and had been targeted (with graphic of gun sights placed on a map) as a vulnerable candidate by none other than Sarah Palin last March. But it's silly to argue that Palin, or the tea parties influenced this particular young man. Palin is playing a political game, angling for votes, and what's dangerous about her is that she might have an influence on policy decisions in the country, not that she is an inspiration to violent lunatics. In any case, it seems that Loughner started to fixate on Giffords in 2007, long before Palin was plucked from obscurity by John McCain. And what upset him seemed to be her inability to respond to his incomprehensible question about grammar, not her political positions.

Of course, anyone with the slightest grasp of our nation's history should know that we have suffered our fair share of lunatic political violence, and indeed lunatic violence of all kinds. The public has quite an appetite for diabolical conspiracies, neat causes and effects that sweep away hard problems. We are credulous suckers for superstition, and it's a kind of superstition to believe that _they_ — the omnipotent system — could magically discern which of the mentally unbalanced population is next going to turn up in a crowd with a loaded gun. I sympathize. It'd be nice to have Hollywood ending.

But instead of trying to figure out who should have perceived the danger or whose rhetoric appealed to the young man, there is still one problem we can solve in a few short weeks: Why it is so easy for anyone to buy a deadly Glock automatic pistol with at least 90 rounds of ammunition?

Posted 13 January 2011

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© 2010 Barry Schiffman