Friday, January 14, 2011

Tragedy or Terror in Tucson?

Was it Tragedy or was it Terror?

When Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head and then began firing into a crowd gathered in a grocery story parking lot in Tucson, was it tragedy? Or was it terrorism?

Most news outlets have gone with the alliterative "Tragedy in Tucson," not asking whether the shootings were a terrorist act. Some government officials, however, are at least raising the issue. FBI Director Robert Mueller has not ruled out charging Loughner with terrorism, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton referred to the shooting when speaking in Abu Dhabi. She said that "we have extremists in my country" and urged countries around the world to cooperate against violence.
This piece, by professor Daniel Byman, is one of the better analyses I've seen since the shooting unfolded a week ago. In my opinion, however, he comes to the wrong conclusion.
Terrorist attacks, by design, foster fear, and if we blame terrorists whenever blood spills, we artificially make the perpetrators stronger. A terrorism charge also brings broader national security concerns to any act of violence, possibly leading to more restrictions on civil liberties. And while foreign terrorists unite Americans in defiance, political violence at home can divide us.
I wonder why that is? Is it because domestic terrorism is often dismissed as the work of "mad men" or "lone wolves" or "nuts"? Are we so eager to dismiss most of Loughner's anti-government rhetoric as "delusional" or the "ramblings of a mad man, descending into madness"? Has the psychiatric-industrial complex so co-opted Big Media that further explanations aren't necessary?

Byman wonders:
Suppose Loughner had a Muslim-sounding name, even though he acted alone and had a history of mental illness. What might we be saying then?
Why the qualifiers "even though he acted alone" and "mental illness"? Were Loughner's "ramblings" about "paper currency," the federal reserve, and "grammar as social control" really more delusional than the lone suicide bomber who hopes to find 72 virgins waiting afterward in paradise?

I'm not suggesting Loughner wasn't mentally ill (so far, the only people to have concluded he is are in Big Media), but I fail to see how he was any more "unhinged" than the typical al-Qaeda operative.

And to answer the question posed, I think if Loughner had turned out to be "Muslim looking," we would be on Red Alert DEFCON 1 and ready to go to war against someone. Instead, according to Byman, we are faced with "going to war" against ourselves.
Already both pro- and anti-gun voices are lining up to spin Loughner's alleged deeds, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has accused her political opponents of manufacturing a "blood libel" against her with criticism of some of her rhetoric. In this climate, saying that Loughner is a terrorist implies that the pro-gun side is not simply wrong, but moreover a threat to the security of the United States.
Hardly. That's like saying people who like to fly in airplanes were not only wrong about flying, but a threat to the security of the U.S. after 9/11. The methods terrorists use is not the debate (guns are no more the problem here than were airplanes). It's the motives and social conditions that must be examined.
Analysts, led by my colleague Bruce Hoffman, have laid out criteria to judge whether an act of violence should be called terrorism. Although there is no consensus, common factors include: 1. Was the motive political? 2. Did the attacker seek to influence a broader audience? 3. Did it involve an organized group (not a lone wolf)? 4. Did it target civilians? 5. Was it carried out by a non-state actor - that is, a person or persons outside the government?
Though he goes on to dismiss many of these, I would answer that in four of the five categories, Loughner's actions fit precisely. His targets were political and civilian, he posted a variety of messages and videos on Youtube (in one, he even refers to himself as a terrorist), and he was a non-state actor.

As to #3, I think being dubbed a "lone wolf" is not only irrelevant but wrong. He didn't act in a vacuum, but instead consumed a steady diet of hate and violence via the internet, books, and other social media.
The biggest reason to avoid labeling this clearly disturbed young man as a terrorist is his political agenda - or lack thereof. Through his YouTube video postings and in interviews with people who knew him, the portrait of Loughner that emerges is one of a man mouthing off at the government, declaring: "I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver!"
Er, how is that "not political"?
His favorite books included "Mein Kampf" and "The Communist Manifesto," favorites of right- and left-wing terrorists, respectively. But even fanatics, not known for their intellectual depth, recognize that the two works don't go together.
I've never seen "The Communist Manifesto" referred to as a "favorite" of terrorists, and I'm even more perplexed by "the two works don't go together." Aren't both, essentially, the documented struggles of their authors against what they feel is big government gone awry?

Byman concludes:
Americans are mystified and mourning after the shootings in Tucson a week ago. There's no good way to explain why Loughner allegedly did what he did. But there is a way to categorize it: tragedy in Tucson, not terror.
On the contrary, it easily fits an act of terrorism...domestic though it may be. As I wrote earlier last year, it's a mistake to dismiss these crimes as being the work of "lone wolves" or nuts or any other label the media (not professionals) puts forth. While I agree with the sentiments expressed by the president on Wednesday, that it's time to move beyond the heated and inflamed political rhetoric of the past several years, there is an element in our society for whom such incivility justifies their sense of outrage.

Yes, incivility in our political discourse does not cause these things, but it certainly "rubs raw the sense of resentment, victimhood and rage" (as a colleague of mine put it) that lies out there in a wrecked economy, an indifferent plutocracy, rampant poverty, social marginalization, and the like. Though some dunderhead columnists have blamed "sociology" for the political reaction to the shooting, I would argue there hasn't been enough sociology applied in the analysis so far.

For example, terrorism is fundamentally a crime, and Loughner's repeated run-ins with the law point towards his eventual implosion last week. "A more reliable set of predictors of violent crime are age (arrests for violent crime peak at about 18), gender (each year men commit roughly 80% of the violent crimes in the U.S.), lower socioeconomic status and history of arrest. (Loughner fits all four)." Throw in repeated drug use, and you're there.

Also, if Loughner ends up diagnosed schizophrenic, it would be the rare case who becomes violent, let alone being capable of plotting with precision an attack such as Tucson.

This kind of attempted political assassination was a carefully planned, meticulously contemplated and well-executed crime; it's not the work of someone out of touch with reality (for more on his "busy day" and "laser-like focus", read this). To dismiss it as the work of "a textbook schizophrenic" means we miss the social forces that played a role in the shooting (see above).

Worse, by failing to address the social problems which led to this attack, we will surely miss further terrorist threats from within.


Rachel said...

I read this article ( and thought of you! And what do you know?! You wrote about it!

Todd Krohn said...

I'm posting this comment from wsteffie, which I received via email but for some reason didn't post to the blog directly.

In my view this tragedy does qualify as an act of terror and I don't doubt that if Loughner had a Muslim-sounding name and/or would be 'Muslim looking' the US would be on 'Red Alert' and ready to go to war against someone. While pre - 9/11 James McVeigh was labeled a Terrorist (some of his rhetoric sounded delusional as well) the current and past Administrations as well as the MSM seem to have reserved the term 'Terrorist' exclusively to foreigners. After all, Amercians on both sides of the political spectrum are full of Patriotism, and would not dare harm their political opponents or fellow citizens other than with words. Why figure out Loughners motives if we can just declare him mentally ill? I'm getting the impression that both parties are not interested in addressing the social problems involved that would mean that they would have to act and try to improve things. So the purpose of the ongoing verbal 'blame-game' is to keep the general public from looking at the real problems. What makes it worse, the MSN and countless blogs I read have largely categorized this as the 'Gifford shooting'. The other victims did hardly get mentioned. Even the president choose to only visit Mrs. Gifford. What does that tell us?

No doubt that the failure of addressing social problems will make matters worse. That is not science, but rather common sense. Since today's politicians are quiet educated I can't help, but wonder if we're not dealing with willful failure here.

BTW, I think 'Carlos the Jackal' acted mostly alone. I can even imagine that the 'Communist Manifesto' is part of his favorite lecture.