when skepticism fails

A terrible tragedy took place today in Arizona, followed immediately (as tragedies nowadays are wont) by a deafening crescendo of voices calling out for various entities to be held accountable, whether or not they actually bear any accountability. And as much as it pains me to defend some of the entities I am about to defend, I find it is the rational, and therefore the correct thing (for me) to do.

This article on Politico sums it up best for me:

A few days, or at the very least, a few hours – in an earlier era, people would have taken a breath before plunging into a remorseless debate about the political implications of an obscene act of violence.

Not in this era.

Within minutes after a gunman’s shots—bullets that killed a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl and four others, and left a congresswoman clinging to life—activists of all stripes were busy, first on Twitter and blogs, then on cable television, chewing on two questions that once would have been indelicate to raise before the blood was dry: Who in American politics deserves a slice of blame for the Tucson murders? And what public officials find themselves with sudden opportunities for political gain from a tragedy?

Even the venerable PZ Meyers was swept up in the moment, positing that the shooter would be found to be heavily under the influence of the right wing: “I’ll take a wild guess here. The scumbag who committed this crime has been caught; I’ll bet he’ll turn out to be a Teabagger who listens to a lot of AM talk radio.” But from “What We Know about Loughner” we find a troubled young man: “Jared Lee Loughner’s YouTube and MySpace pages don’t offer much evidence that he was drinking from the main streams of American politics. The obsession with the gold standard and the hostility to the federal government resonate with the far right, the burned American flag with the left, but the discussion of mind control and grammar sound more like mental illness than politics.” Ben Smith of Politico goes on to quote another reasonable voice:

As the novelist Walter Kirn wrote today, Loughner seems in a line of disturbed lone gunmen, whose political views typically don’t explain much: “Stoned. Lonely. Excitable. Half-literate. Politically incoherent. On the the thin side. These lone gunmen are one brain sharing bodies,” he wrote. “[T]he shooter is an [A]merican, not a political, type.”

Later, Kirn observes what I’d been trying desperately (and failing) to argue for on Facebook all day:

And in the meantime, a group of outraged liberals created a petition to (I’m not making this up) Indict Sarah Palin for inciting Jared Lee Loughner to violence, claiming that when she placed Rep. Giffords on her infamous “crosshairs” map, she became a party to the Congresswoman’s attempted assassination. A simple Google search will give you countless examples of outraged liberals ranting about violent Tea Party rhetoric as if it is the primary motivating factor in Jared Loughner’s reprehensible act of mass murder.

But while I vehemently disagree with Sarah Palin, and indeed with pretty much everything about the so-called Tea Party, I cannot bring myself to blame them if I cannot find a direct connection between them and the thing to blame them for. Much as I loathe to say even one word in their defense, I must observe that if we are assigning blame, we might want to start with the large bird that was sitting on Mr. Loughner’s shoulder. But let’s hear that in his words:

If there’s no flag in the constitution then the flag in the film is unknown.
There’s no flag in the constitution.
Therefore, the flag in the film is unknown.
Burn every new and old flag that you see.
Burn your flag!
I bet you can imagine this in your mind with a faster speed.
Watch this protest in reverse!
Ask the local police; “What’s your illegal activity on duty?”.
If you protest the government then there’s a new government from protesting.
There’s not a new government from protesting.
Thus, you aren’t protesting the government.
There’s something important in this video: There’s no communication to anyone in this location.
You shouldn’t be afraid of the stars.
There’s a new bird on my right shoulder. The beak is two feet and lime green. The rarest bird on earth, there’s no feathers, but small grey scales all over the body. It’s with one large red eye with a light blue iris. The bird feet are the same as a woodpecker. This new bird and there’s only one, the gender is not female or male. The wings of this bird are beautiful; 3 feet wide with the shape of a bald eagle that you could die for. If you can see this bird then you will understand. You think this bird is able to chat about a government?
I want you to imagine a comet or meteoroid coming through the atmosphere.
On the other hand, welcome yourself to the desert: Maybe your ability to protest is from the brainwash of the current government structure.

Violent right-wing extremist rhetoric is ugly, and from my perspective, irresponsible and wrong. I know that there are lunatics out there who have been and continue to be inspired directly by this, but I do not believe that any and all lunatic actions that resemble something a teabagger might have suggested should be immediately and wholeheartedly blamed on them. It’s a little like blaming an extremist animal rights group for the Son of Sam killings on the grounds that he was listening to his neighbor’s dog.

I have not yet been shown evidence that Jared Lee Loughner was able to interact with and understand the world around him, nor that his actions were a direct result of manipulation from any single political ideology. Until such time as a direct connection is identified, I will continue to believe that he is profoundly mentally ill (though I believe he did know what he planned to do was wrong, as he did ask in advance “please don’t be mad at me“).

Skepticism is a natural part of atheism, but it’s difficult to remain skeptical to ideas that seem to make sense, and that agree with our own most cherished cognitive biases — like horrible acts of violence stemming from seemingly-related rhetoric. It’s a logical conclusion based on flawed and incomplete causal connections. And personally, I think I would have enjoyed jumping on the anti-Tea Party sentiment wagon, it seemed a comfortable vantage point that I could have shared with a large number of people I generally tend to agree with — but I haven’t yet seen that clear, compelling, direct connection. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, or that it won’t be found, it just hasn’t been presented to me yet.

One thought on “when skepticism fails

  1. Being mentally ill and being a political extremist are not mutually exclusive. Many political extremists are also paranoid. Some of Loughner's obsessions, such as the gold standard, are too boring for anyone to become obsessed with on his own. There's clearly an influence from people like Beck there.

    As you know from my own blog, I withheld judgment until the facts were in — but the facts are coming in, and Loughner seems cut from similar cloth to McVeigh or the guys who shoot abortion doctors. Mentally unstable perhaps, but clearly with a political agenda.

    I think it's quite possible that Palin consciously intended her rhetoric to lead to actual murders. Aside from the famous gunsight map, she's used shooting metaphors so often that there's a legitimate doubt that they're meant as just metaphors.

    On the other hand, I'm also not convinced that the rhetoric of the Palins and Becks is “responsible” in the sense of being necessary for this kind of violence to happen. If they were not saying the things they're saying, I think we'd still be seeing the same kind of violence. Paranoid extremists are what they are, and they do what they do.

    The person responsible for Jared Loughner's actions is Jared Loughner.

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