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lone nuts

how many of you can remember, without checking, the name of the man accused of going on a shooting spree at an arizona safeway, killing six and wounding over a dozen more, including u.s. congresswoman gabrielle giffords? maybe the name of jared lee loughner was front of mind, but i'm willing to bet that most of you either had to think about it or couldn't quite remember. we're talking about something that was the lead story on north american news agencies only three weeks ago and it's already dropped from view. for how long was o.j. simpson haunting our televisions?

i guess the proper response to that question (aside from figuring out exactly how many days the case(s) of simpson led the evening newscast) is to say that his story dominated headlines because of his celebrity, yes, but really because of the length of the legal proceedings in which he was involved. of course, court proceedings have started against loughner. he has already made a court appearance, although he entered no plea. (his lawyer requested that the judge in the case enter a plea for him, which is by default "not guilty".) and loughner's name will be back in the news, although chances are that he will never command the attention of american (and certainly international) audiences the way that he did in the wake of his arrest.

in other words, we are not likely to find out a lot more about jared lee loughner than we already know, despite the massive impact that his crime had on the american psyche. after all, for a brief moment, i think there were people believing that one of sarah palin's own brood had escaped from the frozen north and done the shooting, or at the very least supplied the gun. before we all rushed to read jared's my space page and watch his bizarrely non-visual you tube videos, it did look like someone was taking palin's "don't retreat, reload" slogan very seriously.

but when loughner surfaced, you could almost hear the national exhalation- sighs of relief on the right, moans of frustration on the left. loughner was not a political activist, although he may well have thought of himself that way. he was not a fringe member of the tea party movement, which is what i dare say we all expected him to be. no, instead loughner was like a number of notable assassins and would-be assassins, the so-called lone nut, targeting his fears and delusions at an individual with no sense of what was taking place in the real world. once we knew that, there was no longer any point in paying attention. after all, people like that will do what they will do, no matter what environment they're put in.

even a cursory perusal of loughner's written work reveals that this man was seriously in need of medical help. his thoughts come out as something like what psychiatrists call "word salad"- an ungrammatical, nonsensical hodgepodge of words that the speaker/ author believes to be profound. it's considered a strong indicator of schizophrenia. i really have no doubt that doctors will concur that he suffers from a serious mental disorder, but does that mean he is automatically a land mine, internally rigged to go off when someone trips his circuitry?

to even attempt to answer that question in the positive is ridiculous. approximately 24 million people worldwide are schizophrenic and millions more are diagnosed with other delusional disorders. the vast majority of them do not exhibit the aggressiveness that we see in loughner. statistically, schizophrenics are vastly more likely to present a danger to themselves than to others. and predictors of violence in schizophrenics are almost exactly the same as those in the general populace:

- when the subject is poor
- when the subject has a substance abuse problem
- where patterns of violence have been established (in the individual or their environment)
- when medication is discontinued or not taken at all

the first three are true of everyone and the saddest part is that shizophrenic disorders are more likely to cause those conditions, because they impair one's ability to hold down work (or limit one to lower-paying jobs) and often hamper one's ability to form strong, positive lasting relationships with others, to say nothing of impairing the individual's ability to make sound decisions for themselves. on the brighter side, despite these odds, over 40% of the time that schizophrenics do receive treatment, the long-term prognosis is positive. only about a quarter of those who receive treatment see their condition worsen.

of course, in order for someone, someone like jared loughner, to have received treatment, he would have had to live in a society where mental disorders were seen like other medical conditions and not as a source of shame. he would have had to have ready access to information about the types of symptoms he was undoubtedly experiencing. neither of these is the case in north america (i don't want to imply that canada is ahead of the u.s. in this regard).

following that, of course, he would have required access to quality health care (something that many schizophrenics, being poor, do not have), meaning both drugs and therapy, and he would have required this over a long period of time- quite likely the rest of his life.

but of course, jared loughner didn't get any of those things. despite the fact that he'd had run-ins with police, despite the fact that his friends, family, coworkers and classmates knew that his behaviour was erratic and occasionally threatening, despite the internet forum posts and the you tube videos and the my space rants, jared loughner simply slipped further into his own mind, his thoughts imprisoning him in a giant feedback loop that grew increasingly distorted. and eventually, he got himself a gun.

giving guns to people whose reasoning is fundamentally unsound is like giving driver's permits to blind people. it is not a matter of their rights, but the fact that they lack the basic skills to use the tool responsibly. the difference between the lone psycho and the lone hero standing firm against the forces of evil- a quintessentially american image if ever there was one- is not present in the severely disordered mind. jared loughner believed that he was fighting a vast conspiracy to conceal the truth and control the populace. he believed he was the hero.

as an interesting side note, loughner's idea, however baffling his expression of it, that power-holders in society entrench their position through the manipulation of language- grammar, syntax, terminology- is hardly the sort of raving that the media would lead one to believe. most will remember that theory as central to orwell's 1984. no one is calling him a lunatic. buried in the convoluted miasma of paranoia and anger in loughner's mind, it is just possible that there were some intriguing ideas. we'll never know.

before we all forget about him and follow the new latest story to take over our headlines, we should perhaps reflect on the lone nuts. we comfort ourselves with the idea that they are rogue elements, beyond control, hermetically sealed and unaffected by anything that happens around them. we allow ourselves the relief of having to assume no responsibility by insisting that their violent outbursts are inevitable. thus does a murderous rampage against members of government become apolitical.

but this is not an apolitical case, and no amount of self-reassurance will make it so. this is a case about societal values. this is a case about access to information. this is a case about gun laws. and it is about health care. viewing our madmen as cultural anomalies makes us feel better, but it's ultimately a mass delusion.

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